While many North Americans snap up tickets to see Fifty Shades of Grey this weekend, actor, writer, and director Rik Swartzwelder is offering a completely different kind of Valentine’s gift to viewers. In contrast to the disturbingly anticipated Fifty Shades, the movie Old Fashioned is a slow-it-down, maybe-we-can-hold-hands love story.
Clay (Swartzwelder) is a reformed frat boy with nine years of abstinence between him and the younger version of himself. Amber (Elizabeth Roberts) is a spirited young woman who goes wherever her gas tank will take her, setting down shallow roots and then moving on. When Amber rents the apartment above Clay’s furniture restoration shop, their very different lifestyles and personalities collide.
Clay’s decision to never be alone with a woman, unless she is his wife, strikes Amber (and most viewers) as ridiculous. It also strikes Amber (and fewer viewers) as somewhat intriguing. The two get to know one another slowly rather than rushing into physical and emotional infatuation.
While it is highly unlikely that a Fifty Shades fan will buy tickets to Old Fashioned instead, I sort of admire the optimism behind that idea. Old Fashioned is a humble offering into the void of slow romance, in direct contrast to popular romantic comedies that have little to do with real relationships. While the first portion of the film gets preachy as Clay has to explain himself a little too much, and Amber’s willingness to dive into Clay’s courtship plan seems implausible, much of the film is a sweet story of two people getting to know the best, and the rest, of each other.
About 10 minutes into the movie, I was thinking that this had a few similarities to an old favorite of mine, While You Were Sleeping. Clay has the tousled blond hair, work jeans, and furniture-crafting vocation of Bill Pullman’s character in that other sweet, slow romance film. Further into Old Fashioned, Bill Pullman even gets a mention, so I can’t help but see some influence there.
For the most part, Old Fashioned offers characters with complex individual histories that affect their present behavior and a natural onscreen chemistry between the leads. They are not caricatures. A couple of the minor characters, however, fall flat and are victims of the story’s need for conflict. The slow pace and its tendency to preach might be off-putting.
Perhaps the biggest concern is that the movie gives a feeling of nostalgia for “the good old days,” the opposite of the fantasy represented by the slick, erotic Shades film. I don’t think finding a true, deep love necessitates a small-town, reclusive life. And I don’t think there’s ever been a time we’ve had courtship and marriage all figured out—but isn’t it pretty to think so?
As for the “Clay vs. Grey” hype that publicists have created, it’s unfair to pit this movie against any Hollywood blockbuster, however morally bankrupt that movie may be. That is simply because the team behind Old Fashioned has a far smaller budget and less experience than the machine that puts out a movie like Fifty Shades.
So, by all means, if you are choosing between one of the two films this weekend, go see Old Fashioned. If you’re looking for other romances that have some depth to them, you could try the historical drama Belle, the quirky Lars and the Real Girl, the gritty but lovely Once, the photo montage of Carl and Ellie in Up! or even binge-watch Eric and Tami Taylor’s supportive, loving marriage through the TV show “Friday Night Lights.”