Perky, bright TV producer Jane Goodale has a theory: Men want what they don't have. She arrived at the theory after her romance with commitment-phobic co-worker Ray hit the skids. She proceeds to explain the notion in a magazine article based on research into the behavior of cows. Experiments showing that bulls mate more easily with new cows than with old cows, she asserts, give us insights into why men don't easily settle down. It's an attractive theory, and it accounts for some cute visuals in the romantic comedy "Someone Like You." (It also explains why the original title of the movie was the less bland "Animal Husbandry.") But the bovines don't cause the problems in this movie; the people do. Most notably, director Tony Goldwyn, who can't harness the considerable power of his actors.
Considerable? Make that huge. He's got wry, sexy Ashley Judd playing Jane, and wry, sexy Greg Kinnear playing Ray. Twenty years ago, the Jane role would have been played by, say, Marlo Thomas. But Judd hits a good tone and holds it. Kinnear shows (again!) that playing the pretty boy in a comedy doesn't mean he has to be the joke.
And as the strong third prong of what turns out to be a triangle, we've got former X-Man Hugh Jackman as Eddie, the womanizing guy to whom Jane turns after Ray becomes ex-Ray. Finally, in yet another thankless little part (is she going to be another Eve Arden?), Oscar winner Marisa Tomei checks in as a luckless best friend/confidant.
True, the script by Elizabeth Chandler ("Afterburn") from Laura Zigman's novel bumbles through some awkward moments. There's a scene with Judd, in bad underwear, leading a cheer that's supposed to be cute but that ends in embarrassment (for us viewers, anyway). And Jane needlessly poses as a famous scientist to espouse her "old cow/new cow" theory, thus raising ethical issues that deaden anything amusing about those scenes. Indeed, the entire final act of this romance scurries around in a desperate effort to resolve the issues raised early on: Will Ray and Jane reunite? Will Jane reform Eddie and fall into his yearning arms? Will the cow theory turn out to be more than just bull?
Goldwyn doesn't effectively solve any of those problems. What's worse, he leaves a lot of good opportunities stranded. For example, Ellen Barkin plays Jane's boss, an ambitious talk-show host with a hard-case outlook. Barkin has played comedy previously, and done it well. Any comedy writer who can't have fun with daytime talk shows simply isn't paying attention. Yet Goldwyn uses Barkin for little more than a diversion and a slightly surprising plot point. Ditto Jackman's Eddie, a character soothing his damaged romantic spirit with one-night stands. Eddie accidentally bumps into the old flame who burned him. He reacts, and then ... nothing. It's a whole subplot discussed throughout the movie but with nothing visible to show for it. (I should also note that Jackman seems quite uncomfortable with anything light. He may be classically trained, but the guy's not versatile ... and worse, he's not romantic.)
By the time Van Morrison's title tune flutters to a close, we're left with Judd, Kinnear and Jackman all looking lost and dumb. Goldwyn had better luck as an actor, especially if you remember his breakthrough role as the bad guy in "Ghost." He has since turned to directing, notably for A Walk on the Moon, a 1999 film with Diane Lane as a 1969 single mom that showed charm and grace. But comedy is a cruel business. And even with Judd, Kinnear and science in his herd, Goldwyn can't keep "Someone Like You" from giving viewers plenty to beef about.