Editor’s Note: One of my authors, Lori Janeski, had a lot to say about the film Old Fashioned, which premiered last week alongside 50 Shades of Grey. I invited her to turn our conversation into a guest review here on Novel Ninja, giving her analysis of why Old Fashioned failed not only as a romantic alternative to 50 Shades, but also why it just plain failed as a means of promoting “old fashioned romance.”

~ Matthew Bowman, Supreme Editor Monkey at Novel Ninja.

I’m not into rom-coms, I’ll admit that at the outset. If you were to ask me to choose between, say, It Happened One Night (Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert) and Twelve O’clock High (Gregory Peck and Hugh Marlowe), I’d pick the war movie, any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

So the fact that I voluntarily went to see Old Fashioned on Valentine’s Day by myself should tell you something. In fact, the main reason I bothered was to try to make sure that Fifty Shades of Smut didn’t make as much money at the box office on their opening weekend.

Knowing that, any review of mine must be taken with a significant grain of salt, because I am not a big fan of the genre in general (with a few exceptions, like Pride and Prejudice). With that in mind, this is what I thought.

Old Fashioned is a very nice, cute, fluffy, romantic movie that tried to compete with Fifty Shades of Abuse on Valentine’s Day weekend. A valiant effort, no doubt, but that’s all it was–an effort. The movie fell far short of anything that could compete with even normal movies, let alone a money-maker with a significant fan base like Fifty Shades of Smut (no such luck there, by the way–I checked this morning. Of the top five box office films: Fifty Shades ($87.1M); Kingsman: The Secret Service ($35.6M); The SpongeBob Movie ($30.5M); American Sniper ($16.4M, obviously still going strong, hooray); and Jupiter Ascending ($9.4M). Old Fashioned is nowhere to be found).

That was not just because this was an overtly religious movie. That had some part to play, yes, but not all Christian films are quaint little B-movies that air only on the Hallmark Channel. For example, I thought that The Redemption of Henry Myers, while overtly Christian, was a well-told story, essentially a vastly improved remake of John Wayne’s The Angel and the Badman, with a better story and script (but we’ll forgive the Duke for being involved in such a corny Western, because it was very early in his career), as well as wonderful costumes, set, and music.

But The Redemption of Henry Myers had plot.

Old Fashioned is, on the surface, your typical love story. Former frat boy meets free-spirited girl, they are attracted to each other, but they each have pasts and problems, and you get to enjoy them working through their issues and finally living happily ever after.

There are only two possible plot lines for romances: guy and girl initially hate each other and have to work that out before they can live happily ever after (the greatest example of this is Pride and Prejudice); or guy and girl initially love each other, but their families/friends/situations around them prevent them from living happily ever after, so they have to work that out before the happy ending (like Eleanor and Edward in Sense and Sensibility, or Lorna Doone).

Editor’s Note: Pride and Prejudice actually uses both plots, which makes it an awesome resource for editors to discuss romance with their authors. Er . . . discuss the romance genre. Yes.

So which one was used in Old Fashioned?

Answer: Neither.

The writers seemed to have gotten character motivation confused with real plot. They tried to make those motivations into the main storyline, and all you get is nice, cute, and fluffy, rather than entertaining and moving, which is what they were shooting for. The result is a waste of two hours and $8.65, and the heartbreaking knowledge that the well-intentioned movie makers didn’t even put a dent into Fifty Shades of Abuse.


The movie begins with a strange hodge-podge of images thrown together, attempting to give you and “in medias res” feeling, but without anything to back it up. Clay is working on repairing a rocking chair by hand in his shop, while Amber is driving through Ohio with her cat, sticking her head out the window and yelling “HELLO!” when she crosses the state line into Ohio. They make a big deal over her gas tank nearly being empty. You can tell that Clay is sad and withdrawn, while Amber is one of those spur-of-the-moment personalities. She also has a broken wrist, and it takes about half an hour to figure out how she got it, even though they go out of their way to draw your attention to it repeatedly.

Those mushed-together images occur throughout the film. One minute, you’re watching Amber and Clay talk to each other while taking a walk, or driving; the next, you’re seeing Amber driving alone in her car, or Clay walking by himself next to a railroad track, being all contemplative, while still hearing the dialogue over the disjointed images. It was very distracting. Their attempt at artistic direction didn’t work out for them.

Amber arrives in town, and rents the apartment upstairs from Clay’s shop. You spend a lot of time watching her unpack, with particular attention given to a large empty glass jar she puts on top of the refrigerator (more on that later), while listening to the radio. This is when you meet Brad, one of Clay’s friends, who is a radio personality named Lucky Chuckie. His only claim to fame is that he is a grossly misogynistic asshole who enjoys talking about his expansive sex life and making fun of women during his program. Apparently, his radio show was so inexplicably popular that he is moving to Los Angeles, and Clay and his other friend David get to say goodbye to him while Amber is unpacking. About the only purpose these friends seem to have is their incessant teasing of Clay about his “strange philosophies,” and thus introduce them to the audience.

Editor’s Commentary: Infodumping is bad.

After what seems an inordinate amount of time spent on the introductions (that tell you very little), you get around to seeing Clay and Amber for the first time. The stove in the apartment doesn’t work, so Amber calls Clay to come and fix it. He walks up the stairs to her apartment door, she opens it, and steps aside to let him in.

Here is where you get your first real indication that Clay is odd. He refuses to come inside unless she goes out onto the landing first. She is confused by that, and you’re sitting there wondering what the hell his problem is. He says that “he made a promise” to never be alone with a woman not his wife. Amber asks him if his wife is always so strict, and is even more confused when Clay answers that he doesn’t have a wife, or a fiancée, or a girlfriend.

Facepalm Implied

He just has this “philosophy” that says that dating doesn’t train people to be good husbands or wives. A good idea–and one I agree with in most cases–but that doesn’t explain his scrupulous behavior. You have to wait another half hour to get those reasons. It’s like they were trying to make both Clay’s and Amber’s pasts into a mystery–as in, a detective story–and fell short again.

I realize that people with a past like Clay’s should take reasonable precautions to keep themselves from falling back into their old habits (and I’m not trying to discourage people from being prudent), but if you’re so bad off that falling into sin while fixing a female tenant’s stove is a real danger for you, you should go ahead and join a cloistered monastery.

Clay’s beliefs are overscrupulous. They weren’t trying to, but they made a caricature of gentlemanly behavior. He’s trying to be “old-fashioned,” but in reality there is nothing traditional about how he acts. Mr. Darcy was a consummate gentleman, even when he was being a jerk; being a gentleman isn’t necessarily about being unfailingly polite. Yet Mr. Darcy was alone with Elizabeth many times, and just being alone together was not improper. Clay took the idea of being gentlemanly and turned it inside out; instead of being there to protect a lady’s virtue and her heart at the same time (and by extension, his as well), he was using it primarily as a way to protect himself, even at her expense (more on that later).

That offended me, and distracted me from the story. As my brother, the serious high-school actor, told me once, it “broke the fourth wall.” It is not gentlemanly or kind or charitable to make the girl who rents the apartment stand out in the cold while he fixes the stove inside where it’s warm, just because he has a strange idea of appropriate behavior. Now, refusing to go anywhere near Amber’s bedroom would have been reasonable. This was just rude, and completely selfish, and only made the main character look like a jerk, instead of sympathetic. She complies, of course, and she teases him a little about it, opening the screen door and sticking her head inside, and he immediately snaps: “Open that door and I’ll raise your rent.” It got a few chuckles out of the audience, but it still wasn’t right.

Editor’s Commentary: Maybe they should have used the Walls of Jericho from It Happened One Night. Always makes me chuckle.

The romance story (I can’t justify calling it a plot line) proceeds rather gradually, in typical rom-com style. Amber is intrigued by Clay, and begins deliberately breaking stuff in the apartment to get him to come by and fix it. She sabotages the garbage disposal first, by taking perfectly good food out of her refrigerator and dumping it down the drain before turning the disposal on. Clay comes by again. Then she sabotages the refrigerator. Then the screen door. During all these little conversations they have, you find out that the glass jar on the refrigerator is her insurance policy, so to speak: “When it’s full, I know I can leave if I need to.” It’s for gas money. That’s how she got to this town in the first place. She left her boyfriend, and just drove in whatever direction until she ran out of gas.

Her “last boyfriend” gives you a sense that there might be some plot hidden in her after all. She says that he is the one who broke her wrist:

“He didn’t want me to wear nail polish.”
“So he broke your wrist?” (said with barely any emotion, by the way)
(a little teary) “He didn’t mean to, but he did.” (sniff) “Is that something you would do?”
“It would depend on the color.” (bad, bad joke)
(laugh) “The nail polish was clear.”

So, Amber ran away from an abusive boyfriend. That is a much better plot line than her just driving somewhere until she runs out of gas. But, that is the last we hear of the boyfriend at all. The broken wrist doesn’t even have much plot purpose, because soon enough she gets the cast taken off, and that’s the end of that. That setup was completely abandoned, instead of being paid off in a satisfying manner.

After the screen door incident, Clay finally succumbs to Amber’s shameless flirting. Basically, he’ll ask her out “if you stop breaking things.” Of course, he has conditions–his rules, his way. You’re not even sure why she agrees–yes, he’s handy, yes, he’s a bit cute (if you like the scruffy, longish hair, blond, slow-smile look), but that’s about all–he doesn’t have much personality.

Next thing you know, they’re being congratulated by a pastor in his office, who hands each of them what is basically a pre-Cana course book, entitled “Red Yellow Green,” and asks them how long they’ve been engaged. “Oh, no, we just met,” was Clay’s answer. Then the hodgepodge of scenes returns, with them taking walks or drives together, and asking each other personal questions out of these books: “Do you like each other’s friends?” “What is your opinion on the death penalty?” and so on. During all this “courting,” they’re out in public, never alone in either one’s residence, and pretty much completely awkward.

Thin Man Charming Parties

There is once again the promise of real plot, when Amber’s friends from the florist where she works are introduced to Clay. They think he’s crazy weird, and here is a shadow of one of the two romantic story plot lines that is never developed. Clay’s friends, David and Brad, barely enter into it, as Brad is in LA with his radio show, and David is more-or-less on Clay’s side (he thinks his friend is weird, but likes him anyway). Again, it’s the plot that should have been.

Amber improves the dating scenario a little, when she makes a shoebox into a sort of lottery drawing, where Clay has to pick something out of the box at random, and that’s what they’ll do together on their date. I’ll admit, this was pretty cute–their first random stop was the hardware store, where he bought an ax, chopped some wood, and they roasted marshmallows. Very rom-com.

You’re waiting forever for there to be some kind of conflict, some tension other than Clay’s weird ideas about dating (it’s not a plot-worthy conflict between Amber and Clay, because Amber, for whatever reason, is going along with his strange ideas). Finally, he asks her to come over to his house (chaperoned by the wonderful Aunt Zilla, of course–she’s without a doubt the best character in the movie), and that is where we get the background on why he’s so uptight about relationships. He was a serious frat boy in college ten years ago–the kind mothers warn their daughters about–and managed to hurt a girl he considered “the first girl he really cared about” when he broke up with her, slept with one of her friends on the rebound, and completely broke her heart. She turned from being a good girl “who wanted to wait” to a typical college girl. She met some guy, got pregnant, got married, and is now getting divorced.

Somehow, this story leads into his “philosophies,” because the ex-girlfriend gave him a bible (not kidding). Then, “when he read it, he knew he couldn’t make excuses anymore.” That was his conversion story.

And we’re still waiting for tension. The dramatic choice, as Matthew Bowman would say. He’s always saying that significant choices drive stories, and that fuels character growth. There should have been drama, but all I’m finding is the bottom of my bag of popcorn.

On one of their dates (where the paper said “get lost” and they go out to beautiful farm country for a perfectly romantic picnic), Amber finally gets frustrated with him. The next question in the “Red Yellow Green” book is “how many sexual partners have you had?” She immediately gets offended, and just wants to have a normal date. The past doesn’t matter. What matters is how she feels about him. She gets into this modern silly attitude and says things like “Tell me I’m the most beautiful girl you’ve ever met,” and “I need to know that you want me. It’s important to me,” and tries to kiss him. He turns away, and she is really hurt by it. He takes her home, and they’re both sad and miserable.

But it’s very superficial. It’s more like one of those fights every couple has to have in order to grow in their relationship–they come from different backgrounds, and have different ideas about what’s right in a relationship, so they need to work it out, or break things off. All they do, though, is go their separate ways without any kind of “it’s over, I’m giving up,” or “we’ll cool off for a day or so and work it out when we’re calmer” or anything, and pout about how not-right the other one is.

The tension and plot line has to be around here somewhere, I’m sure of it. Maybe I needed more popcorn.

Finally, we get around to David and Lisa’s wedding (they have been living together for eight years, and have a toddler-age daughter, and we had to get the proposal on screen, complete with her actually being offended that he bought her a perfectly gorgeous ring and wants to marry her, because “I thought we didn’t need a piece of paper to be committed to each other.” No joke–she actually said that. He answered, “We don’t, but we’re not kids anymore, and I’m not going anywhere, paper or no paper.” She finally says yes, of course). Clay is the best man, and we have to endure Brad flying in from LA to attend the wedding and bachelor party, after making fun of his friend on the air for wanting to get married, of course.

At the bachelor party, there is finally some tension, but again, it’s the kind that isn’t paid off properly.

Of course, it’s lot of guys in a hotel, drinking some beer, listening to music, and waiting for the limo to show up to take them to eat steak. Sounds harmless enough. Then the stripper Brad hired shows up. Clay, being a decent guy, kills the music, and tells David to “think of Lisa,” that “you don’t want to hurt her or your daughter.” Brad gets offended and says “this has nothing to do with them! They’re not here! If you don’t like it, why don’t you take your religiosity and leave.” Clay does, and not long after that, David get up, apologizes to the stripper, and follows Clay outside. It was a good David moment.

Outside the hotel, David and Clay talk for a bit, and David and the others get into the limo to go out for steak. Brad comes up to Clay and yells, “You owe me $200.” You’re waiting for the fist-fight to start between the two of them, and again, nothing happens. Brad gets in the limo with the others and leaves. Then, the stripper and her manager (also known as a pimp) come up to Clay and start chastising him as well: “You think you’re better than me?” and “Do you know how much you just cost her in tips?” That ends as quickly as it started, and Clay goes off to play a game of angry basketball by himself.

Meanwhile, Amber is pouting still, and goes out with her friends from the florist to a local bar. There, she meets Brad (not sure how that would work logistically–I thought he was at the bachelor party. Then again, this might have happened on a different night entirely. It was hard to tell because of the choppy back-and-forth, at-the-same-time style of the filming of the two character’s “turning point” moments). Amber has already had a few at this point, so she asks Brad: “Am I the most beautiful girl you’ve ever met?” He stares at her, confused for a few seconds, and finally says “Sure.” So of course, she agrees to go back to his hotel room with him.

And during all this, after the angry basketball, Clay is alone at his house when his ex-girlfriend knocks on his door (she came to town for the wedding, after all). There are a few apologies, some hugging and crying, and what might have been a kiss (not sure on that one), and all of this is cut between Amber going to Brad’s hotel room. All you see is her stopping at the door to think about it.

Scene change!

Now, Amber is walking down the street in front of Clay’s house the next morning, just in time to see the gorgeous blonde walk out of his front door. Amber gets miffed and leaves, and doesn’t see the important bit–that Clay slept in his truck all night–and the blonde leaves after apologizing for being stupid last night. It’s a sitcom-type misunderstanding, only without the laugh track.

David and Lisa get married, but Amber didn’t go, even though she was invited as Clay’s plus-one.

Instead, she decides to take her girlfriends’ advice and see what Clay was like during his college years. He produced a bunch of pornographic videos–think Girls Gone Wild, only worse–while in college and made a ton of money off them (they told her about it earlier, but she refused to watch, saying “I’ve never met the man who made those,” but because she’s mad at him, she changes her mind).

And you still don’t know what Amber did with her “big decision” moment.

You never see what’s on the DVD, but apparently it was bad enough to make this usually worldly girl cry and turn it off. So, either it was THAT BAD, or the writers had to find a way to show that it was seriously X-rated content without actually giving you anything PG-13.

So now, after all that searching to find a coherent plot, we need a resolution for our not-really-a-problem problem, and Amber goes from crying over that video to reading her brand-new Bible and crying over that instead. Basically, she has her own conversion, and goes to confront Clay about what happened with the blonde. He admits that he slept in his truck, and she admits (finally!) that she never went inside Brad’s room. She turned around and left before anything happened. They’re both guilty of thinking the worst about the other’s scenario, but they get that cleared up.

Yay! And yet, there’s no resolution. There’s no real character growth.

The closest we get to both a plot resolution and character growth comes in the form of Aunt Zilla (my favorite character), who has to slap Clay over the head. She essentially tells him that he is so eaten up with guilt over what he did ten years ago, that he’s taken trying to be good and turned it into wallowing in self-pity (that is the source of his overscrupulous conduct, and making Amber stand outside while he fixed the stove–it’s a self-defense mechanism). “If you were any more self-absorbed you’d be a dot.” Not sure what that means, but it was pretty funny at the time. She goes through the whole speech about how he has to forgive himself, and quit wallowing, and by the way, hurry up and marry that girl (I paraphrase, of course). He actually says that he doesn’t think he “deserves” to be with anybody because of his past. Aunt Zilla has to convince him to “grow up” and “be a man” and stop wallowing. A couple of tears, and Aunt Zilla’s message gets through.

So, the whole “problem” that has taken up almost two hours is all the result of this guy’s guilt trip and resulting scrupulosity, and isn’t even solved by the two main characters. There’s no coming to an understanding, or working through a problem, or a conflict that draws them closer together in spite of their different ideas and broken pasts. Just a lecture by Aunt Zilla.

Editor’s Commentary: Deus ex machina endings might have been fine for the ancient Greeks, but I expected a little better from this movie.

So, we actually get some real romantic stuff at the end, and Clay finally proposes to Amber. She was pretty rude about it, actually, which completely ruined the moment. I know they were trying to be funny, but it’s not nice to cut the guy off with your “Yes!” before he even has a chance to ask the question. Obviously, she knows what’s happening (what girl doesn’t?), but that doesn’t mean you disrespect the man by cutting him off. He’s obviously worked up a romantic plan, and maybe he has a speech prepared. You can respect his effort, and shut up long enough to let the man talk. Besides, if you’re doing it right, you only get proposed to once. You can savor that moment.

Editor’s Commentary: When Elizabeth got engaged, she savored it three times. No, really. She had him repeat himself so she could memorize the moment. Now that would make for a good rom-com finale.

Then, the movie is over.

On the surface, it’s a cute little movie, but those intermittent preachy moments completely undermine the strength of the story, which wasn’t much to begin with. A conversion story, where two broken people have to heal themselves and each other is exactly the kind of story that will engage readers or, in this case, viewers. The idea that two people can out to each other and pull each other out of a bad past and into something whole, good, and beautiful is one for the ages.

But this one had no plot. All the stuff about Amber’s boyfriends and Clay’s frat boy past are great to describe the characters, to give them motivations and reasons for their actions. It cannot suffice as a plot. They don’t grow and change, and only come to a resolution because of an outside character–which completely undermines the romance story, where the two lovers are supposed to be the ones who cause the change in the first place.

Just off the top of my head, here are some ways their background could have fueled an interesting plot by introducing conflict:

  • Amber’s abusive boyfriend suddenly shows up looking for her.
  • Clay’s ex-girlfriend is desperate and conniving enough to really pull Clay away from Amber, maybe in a guilt-tripping kind of way.
  • Brad is even more of a misogynistic asshole and doesn’t take Amber’s “no” for an answer.
  • Clay and Amber fighting at the beginning, with Amber making fun of his philosophies instead of falling for them from the outset (going for the first romantic plot line), and Clay thinking she was just a shallow, selfish little twit who liked breaking things to make him nuts.

Any of those would have given some real plot to the story.

Mulan Dishonor 2

In addition, Clay doesn’t have much of a personality. I’m sure they were going for the quiet, soft-spoken “everyman” kind of character, but it just wasn’t working. People make fun of Anastasia in Fifty Shades of Smut not having a personality, but this movie had the same problem. Amber is pretty good, with her bubbly, almost rude extrovert personality, but while watching the two of them, you can’t help but wonder what she sees in Clay.

Old Fashioned failed miserably, and not because it was a specifically Christian movie trying to survive in a modern secular world. That would not have made any difference if there had been any real plot to speak of, or anything that would move the viewers to appreciate the message the movie was trying to give.

The primary function of movies and novels is to entertain and instruct. It happens fairly often that either authors or, in this case, movie producers, get those out of order. In that case, it’s called message fic, and is avoided like the plague, to the chagrin of some authors who think that promoting social ideals is the primary purpose of science fiction in general, appealing to a small group of the converted and driving away those who just want a good story. Message fic, sadly, has found a home in movies, too. The producers and writers behind Old Fashioned may have good motives, but they commit the same egregious error–they sacrifice entertainment in order to instruct you, and the result is that you walk out of the movie theater thinking you’d just spent the last two hours listening to a live-action sermon trying to disguise itself as a rom-com.

Both fail; and while the failure of the former is a good thing, the failure of the latter is, as I said, a tragedy. A movie like Old Fashioned should be able to pull millions of people away from trash like 50 Shades of Smut. But it can’t, because the makers of that movie hamstrung themselves long before it was ever released. They had no plot to speak of, and counted on the idea that their “message” would be able to compensate for that.

All that does is guarantee that the only people going to see the movie are the ones who already agree with it. The theater I was in was about one-third full, maybe one-half, although that might be overly generous. There were some couples seeing it, a few families with teenage children, but the vast majority of viewers were older folks, couples mostly. That is not the draw this movie needed to have–they needed to appeal to the young crowd in order to pull them away from the sick trash that was showing on two screens right down the hall.

There’s no problem with putting your beliefs in a story. The problem comes when you take your belief and try to make a story out of it. Like the spice in Dune: the story must flow.

The writers of Old Fashioned forgot their primary purpose–you have to entertain successfully in order to instruct people about anything.

Instruction, no matter how well-intentioned, cannot substitute for the basic elements that make a story–setting, characters, and plot.

I’ll say it again–plot, plot, plot, plot, plot, PLOT!

The setting was very pretty (and they never named the town, at least, not that I can remember, and that gave it a very “everyplace” kind of feel. The small hometown that’s always picturesque and comforting), the characters were more-or-less adequate. The direction was poor, in my opinion, but I suppose some people may like that artistic kind of thing. But the plot almost didn’t exist.

Old Fashioned couldn’t even surpass Jupiter Ascending‘s measly $9.4 million, even though reviewers hated that movie, and have near-universally acknowledged it as one of the biggest box office flops in history (just to put it in perspective, that movie cost $254 million before it ever hit theaters). Not even the appeal to normal Americans to spend their money on a decent Valentine’s Day flick instead of on sick trash could help Old Fashioned, not because it is a Christian movie. That’s a cop out–Christian stories can make serious millions, just look at The Lord of the Rings. The reason Old Fashioned failed is because they simply couldn’t tell a decent story.

And that’s the real reason anyone goes to see a move–to enjoy a good story. Even people like me, going to the theater in protest, want good stories.

This wasn’t it.

**Disclaimer** It might be that I have some of the order of events off. As I said, it was done in a choppy manner, and I only watched it once. If you go to see the movie, and realize that something was out of order in the above plot summary, I stand corrected, but stand by the critique of the plot, or lack thereof.