As Susan Sontag once boldly defined "camp" for her generation, so shall the Screener modestly label a new school of cinema: Quirk. (Hey, I'm not saying it's the equivalent of the French New Wave, but in these decadent latter days we'll take what we can get.) For if you've noticed, or even if you haven't, a quirky new evolutionary niche has been created in the sub-species of romantic comedy. A film rooted in authentic Quirk must possess these key features: a decidedly oddball screenplay, rife with one-liners; an atypical first encounter (say, in a neurologist's waiting room); exceptional supporting cast members like Luis Guzmán, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mark Ruffalo or Peter Sarsgaard; and an offbeat starring couple who definitely wouldn't have been cast as romantic leads in the '90s. No, in the brave new world of Quirk, there are no Meg Ryans or Tom Hankses in sight, and hardly any Sandra Bullock or Matthew McConaughey to be found. If you hanker for old-school style, you can still find it in Steven Soderbergh (the magnificently classy Elmore Leonard adaptation Out of Sight); high romantic silliness and witty scripts can be reliably obtained from Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Love Actually). But when you want, nay, must have Quirk, look to slightly younger directors, those who grew up in the vicinity of the Reagan Era and have therefore more warped sensibilities.
Each of the following is basically your run-of-the-mill heterosexual date movie with an additional healthy helping of Quirk. SFR rates each rentable flick according to its Quirk Factor, on a scale from 1 to 5. We've also included not only the quirkiest but the most romantic moments-you know, those uncomfortable pauses during which you can hear your couch partner swallow loudly. Note that I Heart Huckabees and Napoleon Dynamite, both obvious Quirk candidates, were omitted not for reasons of space but because they're both, as the British say, pants (meaning subpar). Honorable mention goes to The Good Girl for its sweetly sinister love affair between a surprisingly effective Jennifer Aniston and the droopy-lidded Gyllenhaal frère.
Garden State (2004)
Directed by Zach Braff, with Zach Braff and Natalie Portman
***image1***Quirk factor: 3, for heavy dependence on mood-stabilizing drugs
Braff wrote and directed this glum little romance in which benumbed young actor Andrew Largeman (Braff) must return to his native New Jersey for his mom's funeral-but sheds nary a tear, his psychiatrist dad (the compellingly wooden Ian Holm) having kept him medicated to the gills since he was 9 years old. His lively new friend, Sam (Portman), steals scene after scene, so bizarrely energetic she's downright annoying; she pretty much embodies the principles of Quirk with her insistence on enacting "original moments." Garden State benefits greatly from its eloquent generation-specific soundtrack, handpicked by Braff.
Quirkiest moment: The young lovers solemnly burying a stiffened hamster in her backyard.
Most romantic scene: Sam and Largeman sit fully clothed in the bathtub talking about his mother, and she preserves his first post-lithium tear in a paper cup-whereupon he smiles with astonishment, as though his face can't quite remember the muscle movements.
Before Sunset (2002)
Directed by Richard Linklater, with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy
***image2***Quirk factor: 2, for gloriously pretentious dialogue
This time around Linklater avoids some of the hammier scripting and amateurish editing to which he succumbed 10 years earlier with Before Sunrise, nonetheless beloved by literature majors everywhere. Even smarter, he relocates the real-time action from Vienna to Paris, tossing off gape-worthy shots of the City of Light almost casually in the background while our two reunited leads keep talking, talking, talking, talking. "You're going to miss your plane," says Celine (Delpy) with sober mischievousness. The passage of time has been kind to Celine-she is if anything more radiant-and honest to Jesse (Hawke), who looks appropriately haggard, exactly as an unhappily married novelist should. Will they or won't they? We'll have to wait for Before Moonrise to find out.
Quirkiest moment: Any of Celine's rambly improvisational monologues about globalism or Nina Simone or her cat or relationships or whatever. Seconded only by her playing guitar and singing a self-penned little waltz about a boy named, coincidentally, Jesse.
Most romantic scene: Our paramours tooling up the Seine in one of those fabulously expensive for-tourists-only bateaux-mouches.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2002)
Directed by Michael Gondry, with Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet
***image3***Quirk factor: 4, for general relationship dysfunction and self-induced memory loss
Charlie Kaufman's screenplay pits a Manic-Panic-haired Winslet against Carrey's depressed introvert and brilliantly displays the entire arc of a love affair, from being limply besotted to despising the way someone chews. Joel (Carrey, giving his best performance to date) pays to have his painful memories of Clementine (Winslet) erased, but changes his mind midway through the procedure. If you don't get chills when the vanishing Clementine whispers "Meet me in Montauk," the all-powerful deus ex machina of Lacuna, Inc. may have already gotten to you.
Quirkiest moment: It's hard to think of any moment that's not supersaturated with Quirk. I can only cite the script's accumulation of screamingly funny non sequiturs: "Sand is overrated," "It's a place that does a thing," and, perhaps most memorably and inexplicably, "I am making a birdhouse!"
Most romantic scene: As a bedraggled Joel and Clementine contemplate the damage they've wrought, they reinvent Nietzsche's eternal return and commit to doing it all over again, even while knowing their relationship will still end in pain. (Clementine: "So what do we do?" Joel: "Enjoy it.")
Lost in Translation (2003)
Directed by Sofia Coppola, with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson
***image4***Quirk factor: 2, for unconsummated May/December love
Stranded in Tokyo, permanently glazed with jetlag and spending way too much time in the hotel bar: the stuff of great romance. Thus Charlotte (Johansson), overeducated and unhappy newlywed, befriends former action-flick actor Bob (Murray). Any Quirk fan worth his/her DVD player will fall in love with the broken-down, washed-up Bob; Murray's every gesture bespeaks years of comedic bluffing finally turned to exhaustion. And Johansson's responsible for one of the most heartrending moments in cinema: the incredulous look on Charlotte's face when Bob initially says goodbye as casually as if nothing has passed between them. If nothing else, you and your date will swoon over Kevin Shields' soundtrack and Coppola's dreamy-clear shots of Mt. Fuji.
Quirkiest moment: It's a three-way tie-Murray crooning along to Roxy Music in a karaoke bar, his bemused appearance on a Japanese game show, and/or an unsolicited visit to his room by a prostitute who seems to think he wants her writhing and "herpress."
Most romantic scene: The insomniac pair finally fall asleep chastely, her foot snugly on his hip, after watching Fellini.
Punch-Drunk Love (2004)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, with Adam Sandler and Emily Watson
***image5***Quirk factor: 3, for phone sex that goes horribly, horribly wrong
Only pathetic "small-business owner" Barry Egan (Sandler) would wind up having his checking account and his kneecaps threatened after one lousy lonely midnight call to a 1-900 number. He's a plaintive, curiously sweet man with just a teency-weency rage problem, but the screenplay never really attempts to explain what a classy dame like Lena (the graceful Emily Watson) sees in him. Bespattered by an assaultive, violent score which sounds like Philip Glass fooling around with chalkboards and rusty screwdrivers after mainlining one too many Americanos, Punch-Drunk Love lingers oddly in one's consciousness.
Quirkiest moment: Any scene featuring the harmonium-or one in which Sandler, planning his escape from the extortionate leg-breakers, surveys his collection of canned food (he's saving labels to earn frequent flyer miles) and mutters, "I have to get more pudding."
Most romantic scene: Barry comes to Lena's apartment in the middle of the night to confess everything incoherently; mercifully, she doesn't listen to a thing he says, taking in the sound of his voice rather than his words, but simply pulls him to her blindly, maternally, in the way that every grown-up little boy secretly craves.
Directed by Steven Shainberg, with James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal
***image6***Quirk factor: 5, for good old-fashioned corn-fed middle-American S/M
Perhaps we'll have to expand the theory of Quirk to make room for Kink. Secretary may not be a successful date movie for that heavily closeted 98 percent of the population who maintain (a little too vigorously) that the sight of Gyllenhaal soeur crawling sinuously along the floor in a pinstriped skirt, with her wrists chained and a freshly typed letter held between her teeth, does nothing whatsoever for them. Drawbacks include some of the ugliest sets ever designed and a closing scene which a colleague once described sardonically as "liptrembling"-for all that, top-notch stuff from both Spader as the dominating attorney barely clinging to his self-control and Gyllenhaal as his enthusiastic novice, um, typist.
Quirkiest moment: Gyllenhaal craftily plants a dried earthworm in a business letter, hoping it'll earn her a spanking-another success skill learned from DeVry?
Most romantic scene: After his shy employee admits to her self-destructive tendencies, Spader leans forward to say throatily, his eyes locked with hers, "You're never going to do that again." Yes, sir; whatever you say, sir.