There’s a determined but gentle realism to the acting in Michael Mohan’s comedy-drama Save the Date, and the five main characters are all essentially likable, even though their faults are laid bare to both the audience and to each other. That combination makes the movie a tender, intimate experience -- it’s not unlike spending time with your friends as they deal with some serious life changes.
The script efficiently sets up the major players: Outgoing Beth (Alison Brie) is engaged to drummer Andrew (Martin Starr), who is in a band with sensitive lead singer and songwriter Kevin (Geoffrey Arend), the boyfriend of Beth’s younger sister Sarah (Lizzy Caplan). Although Kevin is madly in love with Sarah, she has a bone-deep resistance to making a long-term commitment to him. When he pops the question while performing during an otherwise successful gig, she can’t bring herself to say yes, sending Kevin into a spiral of depression that threatens the band’s future plans.
Later, Sarah begins dating Jonathan (Mark Webber), a customer from the bookstore she manages. He seems to be the perfect guy for her, but while her love life is on an upswing, her relationship with her sister Beth -- who is stressed from her own wedding plans and doesn’t care for how selfishly Sarah has been acting -- takes a turn for the worse.
Three different people -- Mohan, Jeffrey Brown, and Egan Reich -- are credited with the screenplay for Save the Date, and while that many cooks often spoil the dish, the trio whip up a brew that’s remarkably consistent. It’s tempting to think that together they figured out the tone and the plot points of each relationship, and then wrote the story lines individually (like the writers for a TV show). No matter what their creative process was, they -- along with the cast -- have come up with a solid little movie filled with people that you like spending time with.
Caplan plays the messed-up center of the film with a remarkable lack of vanity; Sarah doesn’t like it when she hurts people, but she can never quite apologize, in part because she’s still trying to figure herself out. That quest for self-actualization manifests itself in both her repeated attempts at an art career and her clashes with her occasionally overbearing sister, played by the always engaging Alison Brie. The Community co-star can turn on a dime from warm and friendly to cold and judgmental -- a skill she puts to use often on Mad Men -- and here that quality keeps our sympathies shifting between the two sisters.
The male characters aren’t quite as fully drawn as the ladies, but the actors more than make up the difference. Arend, who looks like Curtis Armstrong’s younger brother, makes Kevin’s soul-crushing heartbreak rather affecting; Webber is never less than convincing as a quintessential nice guy without making him seem like a sap; and Starr delivers his patented deadpan comedic style with such skill in the early scenes that when his character has a low-key but memorable monologue late in the film we’re sucker punched (in the best sense) by how well he understands his future wife.
Although it runs just over 90 minutes, Save the Date really could make for a durable TV show. It has the warm tone of a program like Thirtysomething -- a feeling underscored by the appearance of Timothy Busfield as Sarah and Beth’s dad, and by an open-ended last scene that plays like a season-finale cliffhanger. Those who demand big emotions and images will complain that Save the Date isn’t cinematic, but it comes loaded with fine performances and an intimacy that’s rare and always welcome.
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