As a lover of cinema, I’ve never been much of a fan of romantic comedies for the most part. The ones I have given the time of day to, I’ve done so for various reasons such as the cast, director, or a certain angle the filmmakers have chosen to take with the story. On the whole though, I’ve always felt that Hollywood has seldom been able to translate one of life’s most complex emotions accurately to the screen. The lone exception I have found is the 1997 entry Til There Was You, a romantic comedy in which the two lovers in question never meet…until the very end.
In Til There Was You, up-and-coming architecht Nick (Dylan McDermott) and successful ghost writer Gwen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) are perfect for each other. The only problem is, they’ve never met. This is surprising since there are a number of elements linking the two, such as former classmates, buildings and most of all, a self-involved, rehabilitated former child star named Francesca (Sarah Jessica Parker), who has hired Nick to design a new building and Gwen to write her autobiography. Meanwhile, Nick and Gwen toil through a variety of dead-end relationships and wrestle with their own views on love as fate waits for the right time to bring them together.
The problem with most romantic comedies is that so many titles tend to forget to inject actual comedy into the proceedings, hoping instead that the appeal of the film’s stars will be enough. Til There Was You fortunately follows no such lazy rules and instead offers up a number of varying comedic moments, each of which prove well-timed and potent. Some are recurring jokes, such as Gwen refusing to get a cat for fear it will launch her into spinsterhood, until the film’s third act where she has inadvertantly found herself with three cats, or in the character of Francesca, whose obscurity after a stint on a popular Brady Bunch-like sitcom has led most of the film’s characters to believe she’s been dead for years, a fact she annoyingly finds herself having to correct. The biggest laughs however, come from scenes taking place in “The Awful Truth,” a trendy, postmodern restaurant which Nick has designed and where Gwen continuously finds herself dining. Filled with awkward lighting and unorthodox tables and chairs, Gwen endures an ongoing series of pratfalls and injuries as the only patron who seems forever ill at ease in the restaurant.
It’s the film’s take on the singletons’ differing views on love, specifically the reasons why the two main characters are single, which makes Til There Was You a true standout. In Gwen, we see a woman who has lived with an idealized view of romance, where she firmly believes that every relationship she enters into is the one which everything that has come before has led up to, only to be heartbroken when she realizes it isn’t the case. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Nick, who like Gwen enters into one relationship after another, but never lets himself think he’s found the one out of a fear of having to risk fully revealing himself, his fears and vulnerabilities, to another person. It’s the different plights of the two characters who make the film’s message shine through. This is a movie about the people, times, and emotional conflict NEEDED to be experienced on the journey to meeting the one who is meant to be.
Even if they aren’t Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, McDermott and Tripplehorn make for a pair of appealing leads. Both actors’ likeability factor fits just right with the film’s breezier moments, while at the same time the two manage to bring forth their characters’ complicated attitudes about love.
The two are aided by plenty of great character actors on hand lending great support such as Alice Drummond, Craig Bierko, Nina Foch, Michael Tucker, Christine Ebersole, and (in one of her earlier screen roles) Jennifer Aniston as Gwen’s best friend. However, none of them hold a candle to Parker, who commands every scene she’s in by expertly displaying Francesca’s comedic narcissistic mask as well as the melancholic self-awareness behind it.
Really, the biggest of all the odds stacked against the film was that this is a movie infused with so much indie sensibility that was being forced to fit a traditional studio mold. As a result, Til There Was You sat on New Line’s shelves for nearly two years before being dumped into limited release without any promotion in the summer of 1997, where it became one of the blockbuster season’s biggest disappointments. Critics were likewise unkind to the film and bestowed upon it awful reviews. The one lone bright spot singled out was Parker, who received near unanimous praise for what remains her finest work on screen.
It’s a shame many didn’t fully embrace the heart of Til There Was You. The film’s ideas of there being no said plan, romantic or otherwise, and that there is indeed someone out there for everyone, echoed throughout thanks to great writing and performances which remained honest. The biggest hurdle many no doubt have with the film, obviously, is that the star-crossed pair don’t meet until the film’s final satisfying and touching moments. It could have been no other way, because ultimately Til There Was You is not a film about true love, but more about the journey towards true love.