Excise the love story, and there's a pretty good movie buried within "Love Happens" struggling to get out, mostly to little avail. Aaron Eckhart shares top billing with Jennifer Aniston, but hers is clearly a supporting role, leaving Eckhart and a fine performance by John Carroll Lynch to provide the sporadic highlights. Alas, Lynch isn't on the billboards, and those drawn anticipating romance will have to grapple with sluggish pacing and an uneven tone. So while Universal would doubtless welcome a sunnier box office forecast for this Seattle-set comedy, hey, stuff happens.
At times resembling his character in "Thank You for Smoking," Eckhart stars as Burke, who has channeled grief over losing his wife in a fatal car accident into a motivational bestseller, "A-Okay!," and a series of self-help seminars for survivors.
On the verge of inking a deal brokered by his diligent agent (Dan Fogler) that will potentially turn him into the next Dr. Phil, Burke returns to Seattle -- where his wife's buried -- to host one of these events. There, he literally bumps into a flower-shop owner named Eloise (Aniston), setting in motion a relationship filled with unconvincingly twinkly moments.
If only Burke's interplay with Eloise came close to his work with Walter (Lynch) -- a skeptical father who grudgingly attends the workshop, devastated by the loss of his son. Yet the not-too-subtle message in the screenplay that director Brandon Camp co-wrote with producer Mike Thompson (the two previously collaborated on the supernatural romance "Dragonfly" and TV's "John Doe") is that Burke talks a better game than he plays -- counseling the bereaved to shun the numbing help of alcohol, say, while conspicuously swilling Grey Goose vodka (one of several distractingly overt product plugs in the film).
Eckhart again demonstrates his willingness to undertake a variety of roles, and he's compelling enough to hold your attention -- especially in scenes with Lynch or too-brief exchanges with Martin Sheen as his estranged father-in-law. Yet almost more to service the marketing campaign than the story, the narrative keeps returning to Eloise.
Some of the casting ("Six Feet Under's" Frances Conroy, for example, appears in blink-and-miss-her fashion as Eloise's mother) hints at trims that might have occurred, and the movie still drags en route to its well-telegraphed climax. The most ill-served party, however, is Aniston, whose character never really comes into focus, seeming to exist only to advance our sympathy toward Burke. At various points she's winsome (scribbling obscure words in hidden places) yet standoffish; prone to bad personal decisionmaking yet free-spirited; and, finally, conveniently determined to lead Burke out of his funk.
Pic makes reasonably good use of its Seattle locales (while also lensing in Canada) but would have been more interesting by more fully embracing the sense of gloom that the town's frequent downpour invites.
For all that, "Love Happens" isn't necessarily bad but rather like the hyperbolic title of Burke's book: It should lose the "A-," since it's merely okay.