Stop me if you have heard this one before. A boy meets a girl. They have an instant connection that feels like destiny has pulled them together through cosmic forces. But there is a hitch—they’ve never seen each other in person, because they only communicate via lifelong metaphysical telepathy. This is Joss Whedon, after all.
With In Your Eyes, Whedon proves that while he may have signed a deal with Marvel to direct Avengers movies until his soul bleeds, he still never said anything about writing other movies. Indeed, much like his bubbly summer evening cocktail party complete with a game of Shakespeare recitation in Much Ado About Nothing, Whedon’s latest film feels like a celebration of the high-concept and blessedly small budget. But it is in the smallest price tags that the greatest freedom is found.
Hence, In Your Eyes’ slight disappointment when it plays things syrupy safe, albeit even syrup has its charms.
Directed by Brin Hill, Eyes is the second feature from Whedon’s new Bellwether Pictures production company, which seeks on a small scale to chart big ideas. And what could be bigger than a movie romance where the stars (almost) never share the same frame? Indeed, the boldness about this movie is its best feature: potential lovebirds Rebecca Porter (Zoe Kazan) and Dylan Kershaw (Michael Stahl-David) spend the whole movie only communicating through a form of two-way astral projection while separated by a frame and roughly two thousand miles interstate travel. Zoe is the trophy wife/pet lame-duck of Dr. Phillip Porter (Mark Feuerstein), the head of a major New Hampshire hospital. Conversely, Dylan is a down-on-his-luck ex-con with a dreamy smile and a dreamier disposition, as he tries to start a new life from his New Mexico trailer while still on parole. He may flirt with the local good time gal Donna (Nikki Reed), but he only has eyes for the girl who has been in the back of his head since grade school. And thanks to their ability to share the same mental highway space, he can see for himself, to his lamentation, that this doctor’s wife is just “so pretty.”
It is a cute conceit that smartly chooses not to explain the mechanics of its amiable daydream. Much like the limitless theatrical boundaries of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo and nocturnal cab services in Midnight in Paris, there is no explanation required nor given for this vision of theosophy Valentine’s. Logical justifications are for squares like Phillip.
Instead, the movie posits its strength entirely on the impressive vocal chemistry Kazan and Stahl-David share in otherwise empty screen space. Kazan is especially good as the quiet and delicately manipulated spouse/vanity project of a husband who will without warning throw away her photo albums, lest she needs to be re-committed for a mental breakdown. Kazan displays a wealth of insecurity but also excitement at her newfound gift, which she did not realize had been haunting her for decades. Seeing the unknown and mysterious be treated as an adventure instead of a phobia is a reminder of why Whedon’s characterizations are always so refreshing, particularly for female characters.
Dylan is also a fairly well realized. Despite living the life of an easy-going desperado who previously was a middling thief, he is more than intrigued at the possibility of inhabiting a woman’s body. But what he unsurprisingly really wants to do is feel that body, a desire which is reciprocated when Rebecca realizes her metaphysical Romeo is more pshaw than Shawshank.
At first glance, Rebecca goes All of Me on Dylan’s Steve Martin and tries to set him up with Donna. He returns the favor by fixing (or covertly sabotaging?) her complicated marriage. But we realize long before they do that these two star-crossed kids need to cross the country.
Unfortunately, the movie’s pleasantries never extend beyond that simple longing. Wisely skipping the “hows” of this extraordinary scenario, In Your Eyes also forgets about the “whys.” Why are these two inextricably linked through space? Is this a post-modern and post-geek construct about the concept of destiny, soul mates, and any of those other sentimental catch-alls? Or are these two simply in need of an understanding hand, no matter how unlikely the source? The truth of the matter is that the movie is never interested enough in exploring its amusing fantasy for anything other than the stock melodramatic plotting. She falls in love with Dylan, but she must stay faithful to Phillip, at least until he suspects that she is having an affair. For such an extraordinary premise, it is a shame how ordinary the characters tend to be.
By the third act when old time friend Bo (Steve Howie) is hustling Dylan into a world of crime, and Phillip collapses into Whedon’s apparent continued cynicism for men in white coats, with all the moustache-twirling that entails, In Your Eyes’ early originality gives way to a surprising amount of formulaic unvariedness.
Nevertheless, for the Whedon faithful, it is a curious proposition posed by a storyteller with near carte blanche these days to do what he wants. And in the scene where Rebecca and Dylan explore each others’ bodies like the paperback beach read version of Avatar, he reaches the bizarre exoticisms only Whedon would find in a meet-cute love story. If only a movie reached for more than the low hanging fruit.