NEW YORK — A few scenes into 20 Dates, Myles Berkowitz sits down with his favorite guru, Robert McKe e, a screenwriting expert who has strongly influenced the shape of recent filmmaking. Pointing to "Sleepless in Seattle" as evidence, McKee tells Berkowitz, who is the film's director and star, that today's romantic movies aren't about love but about the longing for love, which is quite a different thing.
He could be right. Current attractions as varied as the sentimental "Message in a Bottle" and the antic "Rushmore" are less about full-blown romance than about the desire for desire. One focus of their subjects is the contrast between everyday life and the wish for love affairs like the ones we used to see in movies all the time.
The same goes for "20 Dates," suggesting that McKee's formula applies to a wide range of current films. Yet a new romantic picture with a bigger budget and a more famous cast, The Other Sister, only follows his description until about the halfway point, reminding us that Hollywood pictures - like love itself - often break away from the categories that are supposed to explain them.
"The Other Sister" focuses on an unusual love-story heroine. Her name is Carla Tate, a twentysomething woman who has spent most of her early years in a boarding school for mildly retarded youngsters. Now she's back home with her wealthy parents, who hope she'll settle down to a quiet life.
But she has bigger plans: computer courses, a job in the outside world, and enough independence to find contentment on her own terms. Her parents react to these ambitions with a mixture of anxiety and acceptance. What nobody expects is the arrival of Danny McCann, who resembles Carla in both his mental condition and his unquenchable high spirits.
Are they a perfect match or a disaster waiting to happen? That's the question Carla's parents and the movie's audience are given to ponder.
The first hour of "The Other Sister" introduces Carla and her family, including her very different siblings, and eases Danny onto the scene through a "cute meet" at the computer school.
This portion neatly fits McKee's recipe for contemporary romance, since Carla and Danny are attracted by the idea of love, but don't fall automatically into conventional girlfriend-boyfriend patterns. The second half of the story takes romance from theory to practice, though, suggesting that everyone has a right to amorous pleasures regardless of social or cultural labels. McKee's formula bites the dust as Carla and Danny pursue their affection wherever it may lead, including the sexual intimacy that earns the picture its PG-13 rating.
"The Other Sister" was directed by Garry Marshall with the same glossy touch he's brought to earlier movie and TV work. There's not much depth to the tale, but the offbeat characters have a reasonable amount of dignity. And it's impossible not to care about the outcome of the couple's relationship.
Juliette Lewis and Giovanni Ribisi play Carla and Danny with full-throttle commitment, supported by Diane Keaton and Tom Skerritt as Carla's often-befuddled parents. Dante Spinotti provides the glistening camera work.
Little is glossy or glistening in "20 Dates," made on a shoestring by a director with a romantic ambition of his own: to capture on film the magical moment when two real-life people fall in love. Calculating the odds at about 1 in 20, he decides to videotape his own dates with that number of eligible women. If all goes well, the experiment will give him a steady girlfriend and the first movie of his budding career. If it doesn't, he won't be any worse off than he was, unless an angry companion finds out about his hidden camera and decides to clunk him over the head with it.
In pursuing this project, Berkowitz runs the risk of turning himself into an obnoxious on-screen cad. Fortunately for all concerned, his voyeurism isn't as flagrant as it first appears, and he eventually learns that leveling with his dates is a more effective policy than sneaking up on them.
The movie can't be called a clear-cut documentary since Berkowitz has manipulated his material as well as his "performers," going more for candid-camera laughs than sociological views of the dating game. In the end, "20 Dates" is as entertaining and irksome as an evening with Berkowitz must have seemed to most of the women he went out with.
*The Other Sister,' rated PG-13, contains adult dialogue, a subplot about homosexuality, and clearly implied sexual activity. '20 Dates,' rated R, contains implied sex and very vulgar language.