Ah, Billie. You want to love her. Her winning, get-up-and-go-girl refusal to acknowledge the hard facts of her life (Queens, alcoholic mother, poverty) is the most entertaining kind of coping mechanism: Rhinestone Denial. She looks so good, you can hardly blame her for not wanting to admit that she's crooning to a handful of sputtering seniors in a decrepit lounge owned by a guy who looks like a dad. As she conjures visions of packed cabarets, inhaling the drug of an entire genre, you want to forgive her her clichés. So what if the whole thing is overripe, its juices long since squeezed by her slinky forebears and their countless imitators? Billie wants it. And she's got the gowns to get it.
If only they were enough. True, Anything But Love is not trying to be new. It's trying so hard to be old, in fact, that the nostalgia congeals around the central character in a deadening carapace from which she never quite manages to emerge. Billie's dreamy, all right -- so dreamy that you might find yourself tempted to give her shoulders a little shake. Or a big one. Witnessing her life is like walking through honey: For a while, its sweetness delights, and then you realize that you can't breathe.
So what happens? First, Billie is reunited with Greg Ellenbogin (Cameron Bancroft). Once the popular star of the high school musical, Greg now returns to claim the chorus girl he really wanted to kiss at that party one time but, in a stunning display of originality, overlooked for the female lead. Greg is a corporate lawyer (read: death to the spirit), and he sees his own lost dreams in Billie. Their courtship scenes whirl by in a montage-like shorthand for forming an actual, loving attachment, a device that will come back to haunt us later.
Not too long into this plot, Billie's performing career turns on a single point: her ability to play the piano. She enlists the help of Elliot Shepard (Andrew McCarthy), the moody accompanist whose floppy hair, scruffy clothes, and two-day stubble are meant to signify artistic authenticity. Unfortunately, the very hair that is supposed to elevate Elliot from hack to artist actually conceals his entire face; as it's Andrew McCarthy we're talking about, he has no chin to rescue him. Another courtship montage ensues, and although we know that Billie is supposed to be falling in love not merely with Elliot but also with her music, it's hard to see evidence of either.
The conflict, of course, involves Billie's struggle to choose between "real life" (in this case, pastel-hued material comfort in the arms of a Ken doll) and her diva dream, signified by Elliot and his mirror-image apartment wall, covered with pinups of piano greats. Greg argues his case for trophy wifedom, while Elliot tinkles away for the love of art. Which man/path will she choose? They certainly do keep you guessing.
There are some problems here, and not just with the dialogue, which is tired to the point of exhaustion: A typical line sounds as though its head has already hit the pillow and it's just "mm-hm"ing us before it falls asleep. ("You're an artist, and he'll never understand that.")
First, the idea that Elliot the scruff monster can initiate Billie into the Technicolor landscape of her feelings is ludicrous. Charm us though he did in Pretty in Pink, here McCarthy is a lump of unformed dough: pasty and utterly without flavor. Second, Billie is supposed to resemble a '40s film diva, but she recalls nobody so much as Ariel from The Little Mermaid, circa 1989. Billie has a very Disney voice, sweet and lulling, as though she were singing to children and perhaps some dancing clams.
Where's the spice? Billie's character is supposed to be invested with fiery emotional interiority, but she's so blissed out by fantasy as to be smooth and creamy, untouched by flames of any kind. She moons; she pouts; she possibly even frets. But where's the passion? Where's the power? Where, that is to say, is the Liza? When the action rises to a head and Billie gets her diva moment, she merely whinnies where she should roar: "So what if I want to live my life like some Technicolor dream? Am I hurtin' anyone?" A battle cry this isn't.
Finally, it's impossible to believe that Billie loves either Greg or Elliot. Maybe it's the breezy lack of concern with which the movie fails to develop the relationships (the montage-as-stand-in problem). Or maybe it's Billie, far too gone on her vintage frocks to love any man. When she affixes her glittery rhinestone clips to the straps of her gown, her eyes shine with a look she never manages to muster for her boyfriends. Her theme song shouldn't be "I Can't Give You Anything But Love." It should be "I Can't Give You Anything, Including Love, with the Possible Exception of a Beautifully Composed Period Ensemble, Topped by Professional-Quality Hairstyling and Makeup."
Alas, even Eartha Kitt can't save this movie, though she has been shouldered with the burden. Her immense, froglike face does its requisite wowing, but though her marital advice may stun Billie into sense, her kittenish purr never quite makes it across the gulf. In the one scene meant to inject some Eartha mojo into Billie, Billie needs far more Eartha than Eartha can give.
In Anything But Love, as in Billie's Technicolor dream, anyone who promotes getting real is a villainous traitor to love itself. But pretty much everyone here could have benefited from a swig or two of a reality cocktail -- one part believable dialogue, one part emotional presence, a splash of irony, and maybe an olive. An olive could have seriously sobered things up.