Directors: Rob Reiner, Roman Polanski; Cast: Katherine Heigl, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Russell Brand, Jonah Hill, Seann William Scott, Paul Rudd, Vince Vaughn, Ving Rhames, Amanda Seyfried, and Amanda Bynes
Noah Means Yes, co-directed by veterans Rob Reiner and Roman Polanski, is the film equivalent of a cuddly baby chimp that you adopt from the wild who then eats your face off. At least forty-five minutes of the film will please the women who want nothing more than to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt work his alchemy of turning unrequited love into true romance.
The final scenes of Noah might please some of the unlucky boyfriends who are dragged along to sit through a supposed chick flick. They’ll also please the serial killers, critics of rom-com fantasy, and those of us who are bored with the genre and never thought we’d be surprised by a major studio again. (Whether this film will actually get distribution is another matter.)
I’ll go out on a limb here and say Noah Means Yes succeeds where 500 Days of Summer and He’s Just Not That Into You fail. At first it appears to follow the traditional rom-com arc, before it veers off wildly into territory more reminiscent of The Shining. As such, the movie is less a romantic comedy than a commentary on the creepiness of the genre itself: in movieland, the path to a woman’s heart is often blind persistence, whereas in the real world, persistence in the pursuit of a woman’s heart might involve chipping away at her sternum.
The movie’s confusing but ultimately genius bipolarity is a result of its curious production history. About half was filmed in New York, but Rob Reiner threw his back out while choking at Katz’s Delicatessen three weeks into the shoot and was unable to travel to Temptation Resort in Mexico to film the crucial second half of the picture.
“We needed a Jewish director, and we needed someone with the balls to do romance right,” says an executive at MGM who asked not to be identified. “Roman wanted to get back to North America, and we knew he’d be perfect. He loved the film, loved the idea of Temptation Resort, and knew this was a chance to come back on his own terms. The only thing he asked for was a little creative control over the script.”
The film begins with Noah Asher (Gordon-Levitt), an entry-level financial professional who lives and works in Manhattan with his best buds Adam (Jonah Hill) and Hannibal (Seann William Scott), whom he also went to college with. When not working, The Bros, as they’re called, try to help Noah overcome a recent heartbreak (she cheated on him and then left) by wing-manning him through meaningless hookups with a string of women, most of which end with Noah crying alone in the bathroom until his friends lure him out with consoling romantic comedies and popcorn.
It’s clear that these romantic comedies, which Noah confesses to having watched all his life, serve as training films for Noah and The Bros; even when not openly discussed or watched by the characters, you see rom-com DVD covers, movie posters, in-flight entertainment options, and background shots of them playing in bars and at house parties.
The usual happens when Noah and The Bros’ firm, headed by Paul Rudd and Vince Vaughn, brings in Angelina (Katherine Heigl), a quirky Midwesterner (read: Annie Hall dumbed down and at the mall) who is oblivious to all the attention she generates. Noah, of course, falls madly in love, inspiring the requisite scenes of him stumbling over himself to win her affection even as she falls down the stairs on her first day at work and farts at a board meeting.
After a string of solid “No”s from Angelina, the diligent Noah finally secures a lunch date during which she tells him of her childhood in Kansas and her dreams of making it big in something one day. “I won’t be a secretary forever,” she sighs. “I just want the normal life, a good career, a devoted man, and a few kids.”
From the scenes we’ve seen of Angelina at home causing explosions in the microwave, melting blouses under the iron, and flipping through iPhoto albums of bungled jobs, internships, and relationships, we know her destiny will be bleak—though most of us expect spinster, rather than spinning on a spit like a pig.
When Noah reaches his hand across the table for hers and confesses he wants this life for himself and that he wants her, it’s clear the kiss he intends to plant next will land somewhere in the Pad Thai. At this point, and throughout the Reiner portion of the movie, the tone is striking: Noah’s repeated advances are treated as heroic, and we get the sense he will be rewarded for them as soon as Angelina realizes his devotion to her makes him the one.
Just as Angelina scrunches her nose and pulls away, saying she reluctantly agreed to this “friendly” lunch, her girlfriends happen to stop in. Angelina embarrasses herself and the Amandas (played by real life Amandas Seyfried and Bynes) by lighting her cloth napkins on fire and spilling water all over the table.
When she runs off to the bathroom in tears, her friends tell Noah that Angelina will always be alone because she’s just so weird. They find her disgusting. She’s a virgin. She can’t keep a job. She’s driven away dozens of boyfriends. “Wait, you don’t actually like her, do you, Noah? Dude, just celebrate the fact that you dodged a bullet when she blew up your lunch.”
Hijinks ensue as the Amandas and The Bros try in vain to take Noah from the chase. Angelina sets very clear “just friends” boundaries, and given the amount of time they spend together, you doubt either has time for another pal: They eat lunch together daily, take shopping trips, go to museums and tourist spots, and hike through city parks. Meanwhile, the four sidekicks find themselves increasingly drawn together, hooking up in a bewildering array of configurations like the side plots in a Shakespearian love comedy.
One drunken night, The Bros show the Amandas secret video footage taken of Noah sleeping with a string of rebound women. The Amandas show the videos to Angelina, who is horrified. Although quirky and pretty, Angelina turns out to be a prude who thinks intimacy should be reserved for married couples—and then only once or twice a year on special holidays. “Not even oral?” one Amanda asks. “What about in the butt?”
Angelina dumps Noah as a friend when they next meet, which also happens to be the date at Coney Island at which he’d planned to confess his love and plant a real kiss. Alone in line for the Cyclone, rose in his hand, it’s hard to see a way out for Noah now.
Even though we’re only halfway through the movie by this point, it seems like everything should be over. And it pretty much is, until Paul Rudd and Vince Vaughn announce they’re taking everyone on an all-expenses-paid company retreat to Temptation Resort on the Yucatan Peninsula, where they can work on company bonding.
Temptation Resort is pure Sarah Marshall territory, down to the group’s guide, the charming (Mickey) Russell Brand, who leads them in trust building and motivational exercises while taking a particular interest in Angelina, thus setting up Mickey and Noah as mismatched rivals. It all goes to hell when, noticing Angelina return Mickey’s affections, Noah punches him in the face. The men hold Noah back, he watches Angelina lead Mickey away, and the next morning the two walk in together holding hands, Mickey with a black eye and Angelina in her clothing from the night before. Polanski has entered the building.
I won’t ruin the final few minutes of the movie, but even though Polanski stays true to Reiner’s Randy Newman score and rosy camera filters, things get gritty and dark. Noah books a flight to New York the next morning, vows to change everything in his life. “Fuck this hotel: It’s nothing but a dry hump, tempting me to give up. And fuck love too. Fuck everything I’ve believed. I’m tired of the same old shtick. The only way to get a woman is to get her.” From this point forward, it’s worth noting that the movie references switch from rom-com classics to fare by Kubrick and Hitchcock, even theater like Woyzeck and Artaud.
That night, Noah gets deathly drunk, and when The Bros and his concerned bosses find him by the water, he’s talking to Tevin (Ving Rhames) about his problems. Tevin, whose new bride has just left him on their honeymoon, goes on about how you have to be firm with a woman and show her who’s boss. “They don’t know who they are or what they want without us. In fact, whenever they say or do no to me, I know that’s when I got to show them yes.”
It turns out that Paul Rudd and Vince Vaughn have also been recently spurned, and that The Bros have been abandoned by the Amandas. Led by Tevin, the men swear a blood oath that night, stripping to their underwear, carving the word Yes into each other’s chests with seashells, and baptizing themselves in the bloody surf while sharks circle offshore.
As the movie brings us to the primal scene, I had flashbacks to Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. And in fact, in the final moments Polanski explicitly paints Mickey as an inverted Kurtz and echoes the slaughter of Brando/the ox. Armed with tiki torches and broken bottles from the resort’s open bar, the men crash a staff/guest swinger’s party in Mickey’s suite, drag the new couple out by the hair, and haul them to the top of a faux Mayan temple where life and death will mingle midway between heaven and the underworld.
David W. Harrington is a writer and educator who lives in Brooklyn. Along with his wife, Sally, he dispenses solicited (but perhaps misguided) advice about relationships, dating, and sex at www.coupledwith.com.