Burke Ryan is A-OK. Or so he says.
Burke wrote the book on being A-OK—quite literally. Three years ago, his wife was killed in a horrible car accident, and he’s spent his time since then charting a step-by-step strategy for overcoming grief. His self-help musings became a wildly popular book (titled A-Okay!), and now Burke is a one-man industry of optimism, leading self-help seminars filled with folks determined to stop mourning and start living.
“I’m feeling A-OK!” he shouts to the audience, which cheers with that desperate bravado you only hear at motivational seminars.
Thing is, Burke is not A-OK, and he can’t confess this sad truth to anyone—not even himself. “Alcohol’s no more a cure-all than a Band-Aid on a bullet wound,” he writes in his book’s 12th chapter. But when he’s alone, he slams vodka like Shaq downs Gatorade. A healthy mind requires a healthy body, he tells his conference-goers. And so he grimly trudges up hotel steps like a Himalayan Sherpa.
He’s as sad and as desperate as anyone in his audience, but far worse off: They, after all, acknowledge they need help. He claims he needs none—that he’s just fine, A-OK. Really. Never mind that he’s teaching a conference in Seattle, the same city in which his wife was killed, the same city in which she’s buried, the same city he’s avoided visiting the last three years. Never mind that Burke’s embittered father-in-law crashes the conference and lays a brutal guilt trip on him.
“When are you gonna stop lying, son?” he asks.
Lying? Burke? No, he’s A-OK. Really.
And then he meets Eloise—a pretty florist who scrawls bizarre words behind paintings hung in hotels. Burke doesn’t realize at first that Eloise might be his key to moving forward, to following through more fully on his own concepts. He has lower expectations: Burke thinks Eloise just might make him feel A-OKer.
Burke may be hypocritical, but he doesn’t mean to be. He really wants to help people through their grief, and he’s pretty successful in doing so.
In Seattle, he takes a particular interest in Walter, a one-time contractor whose son was killed. Walter, who lost his job and wife in the aftermath, doesn’t really think he’s going to be helped by Burke’s touchy-feely relational stuff. But Burke asks him to give the conference a chance. And throughout the weeklong seminar, we see Burke prodding Walter to talk about how his son died—to talk about the unfairness of it all, the heartbreak he’s feeling.
“The death of your son has become the death of you,” Burke tells him.
Walter’s having none of it at first: When other attendees dash across a walkway of hot coals, Walter refuses—even when Burke stands on those coals, encouraging him to take a step with him. When Burke takes conference-goers to Home Depot—a field trip specifically designed to ease Walter back into his pre-death life—Walter at first says he can’t bear to get off the bus. Burke prods him and together they walk through the store, aisle by aisle, picking up relics of Walter’s past. And then Burke buys them all for the rejuvenated, grateful man.
Burke still has his own issues, but Eloise is on hand to help him with those. “My life is a day-to-day experiment in really bad decisions,” she admits to him, “but you’re really messed up.” She takes him to his in-laws’ house in the hopes that he’ll talk with them and free his dead wife’s cockatoo—a promise he made to her that he’s never had the heart to fulfill. He manages to free the bird, but he’s still too terrified to talk with his in-laws.
[Spoiler Warning] That reconciliation happens only after Burke breaks down on the last day of the conference, confessing what a broken man he truly is. He tells them that he was driving the car when his wife died—a truth he’s never before revealed publicly—and sobs onstage. Burke’s father-in-law, who was hoping to get another chance to chide him, instead climbs onstage and tells Burke they never blamed him for the accident.
“All we wanted to do was mourn with you,” his father-in-law says. They part with tears and hugs.
For a film so focused on death and grief and moving on, there’s surprisingly little spiritual content. In fact, it’s interesting how fastidiously the film ignores it:
Burke describes funerals as important rituals because they do more than “recognize a life that’s ended. They recognize a life that has been lived.” But he makes no mention of an afterlife, and says that the dahlias at his wife’s funeral were so beautiful it seemed they were welcoming her “into the ground.” Burke adds insult to injury by snidely impersonating a believer, proclaiming, “There’s been a healing!” when someone pretending to be deaf and dumb turns out to be just fine.
It’s only in one of the movie’s songs that prayer and God are really referenced.
For a PG-13 romantic comedy, Love Happens casts Burke and Eloise’s relationship in a surprisingly chaste light. They shake hands on their first date, kiss cheeks on the second. Only at the end do they share a passionate kiss.
But that doesn’t mean the film is without issues. Marty, Eloise’s florist worker bee, dabbles in something called “slam poetry,” and her lyrics include references to “battery-powered sex” (as her hands inch toward her crotch) and “phallus.” Eloise makes references to “SpectraVision porn” and finding “lipstick on boxers.” She at first believes that Burke is a girl-in-every-port type of guy. A woman talks about making a model of her husband’s anatomy.
Someone announces they see a naked hot-tubber. (The camera finds her after she’s put on a robe.)
Burke tells his audience about a football coach who used a shotgun to commit suicide.
That story introduces a lingering threat of self-destruction to this one. Though Burke never suggests he’s close to suicide, that story plants seeds in your mind. And scenes—one where he stands atop Seattle’s Space Needle, another where he submerges himself in a swimming pool—imply that Burke could be teetering on the edge.
Burke nearly gets hit by a car when he jaywalks. His feet are treated for some icky-looking blisters after he stands on the hot coals. We see Burke’s wife’s accident several times: their car slides into a pole in order to avoid a wet, bedraggled dog.
The s-word is used three times, and for some people the film’s title will bring the s-word to mind. Burke’s assistant regularly refers to himself as “Lane G–d–n Marshall.” And God’s name is misused another dozen times; Jesus’ three or four times. Other curses include “b–ch,” “a–,” “p—” and “h—.” Burke makes an obscene gesture.
Burke and Lane often drink. We see Eloise throw away beer bottles at her mother’s house. Burke, Eloise and a few other folks spend an evening in a hookah bar, with Burke coughing violently as he tries to smoke from the hookah pipe. Burke, amused by Eloise’s daffy behavior, asks if she’s taken some cold medicine.
Burke breaks into his in-laws’ house. Eloise writes obscure words—quidnunc, for instance, or poppysmic—on hotel walls behind paintings. She also essentially lies to Burke when she first meets him.
Love Happens happens to have some problems. It’s not uproariously funny. The plot is less than convincing. The script contains some rough language and tawdry exchanges.
But in many ways, it’s a pleasant surprise. Billed as a romantic comedy, it dispenses with many of the genre’s favorite tropes. Burke and Eloise only hate each other briefly, for one thing. And they don’t jump into the bed the second they meet. Actually, they don’t jump into bed ever.
This film focuses instead on Burke coming to grips with his loss. Moreover, it makes an important point: For all our passion for self-help experts and 12-step programs and positive thinking, many of life’s problems can’t be cured by alfalfa sprouts, vigorous exercise and practicing your smile in front of the mirror.
Our age is in love with easy answers. We dream that wrinkles can be ironed out with a set of bullet points, that satisfaction is just a website away. But life doesn’t work that way. Life can be hard. Loss can be crushing. We’re not always A-OK.
And while Love Happens doesn’t offer up Jesus as the answer, it acknowledges that there are no easy answers. And it manages to do that without unnecessarily denigrating the programs and people that often try to—and do—help a little bit. It simply reminds us of what we all know: That recovery comes not through denial, but through pain. We find our way not through forced smiles, but honest tears.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.