A Black Eye in Joel Hopkins’ The Love Punch
The golden rule commands us to do unto others what we would have them to do us. Romantic comedy, The Love Punch obeys this Confucian edict with a vicious reversal of class dynamics. The Love Punch Pierce Brosnan + Emma Thompson team-up finds the star-crossed, divorced couple rekindling their romance by swiping a valuable diamond from a dastardly CEO who deprived them of their retirement funds. The title refers either to the intoxicating chemistry between the stars as they chase the corporate shark around the white beaches of the Riviera or a sock-in-the-eye from the 99 Percenters to the rich. Either interpretation works: the film’s tagline, “You can’t pinch a diamond without stealing a few hearts” mixes larceny with love. The slogan also suggests a game of chance, but The Love Punch presents one sure thing: a disturbing portrait of American narcissism.
The Love Punch: An Economic Fable
In a broader context, The Love Punch reflects grievances regarding economic disparity in the United States. The terms “one percenters,” “forty-seven percenters,” and other numeric euphemisms distinguish the minority haves from the larger body of have-nots. The current fierce political debates over minimal wage increases, nationalized health care, immigration reform, and lobbyists’ political contributions all circle around this “wealth gap” as Americans grapple with a national identity that comes from a tradition of rhetorical democracy, equality, individualism, and capitalism. Writer/director Joel Hopkins’ comedy draws its laughs from a vindictive indictment of the rich as the presumably upper middle-class Richard (Brosnan) and Kate (Thompson) strike back at the system. However, in doing so, the movie misfires in a glorification of entitlement culture.
The Love Punch takes place in Hollywoodized Europe with Richard understandably upset over CEO Vincent Kruger’s shady dealings. Kruger has bought Richard’s company, ran it “into the ground,” and foreclosed it, thereby freezing his retirement pension. Our hero enlists his ex-wife Kate to help track Kruger down and demand an explanation and to reinstate his pension—an action Kruger can’t really perform since the government has locked down all investments. The movie features a scene with Richard’s worried co-workers, including the film’s sole minority character, but they don’t really matter except to build up viewer antipathy toward the corporate scumbag.
Richard’s co-workers apparently can do nothing but he has a more daring plan. To ensure that their financial tomorrow never dies, Brosnan and Thompson decide to use “what little money I have left” to buy airline tickets, rental cars, hotel suites, and double that for their co-conspirator neighbors. Their limitless credit may be mere movie magic, but it underscores the economic significance at stake. Richard and Kate want to maintain their lifestyle. Kate has a job as a “trained child psychologist”—she grades papers in one scene—but even Hollywood won’t pretend she can survive on a teacher’s salary. In case the audience misses out on what’s at stake, Richard mentions his house, his ex-wife’s house, their kids’ college toys (their daughter’s VW; their son’s super computer), and whatever else their feature length budget allows. Richard also mentions his co-workers’ collective plight (“the little people who’ve done nothing but play by the rules”) as an excuse, but Richard and Kate come first. They continually repeat they want to “get back what’s rightfully mine.” After twenty-five years sweating in a “god-forsaken job” he’s entitled to his rewards.
Actually, what they want isn’t theirs. Kruger kicks them out from his office, partly because they’re trespassing and partly because he’s an insensitive bad guy. However, the film glorifies Richard and Kate even as it elides Kruger’s actions. Kruger basks in his “completely legal” scheme, which is an action he’s done countless times before. Richard’s only excuse is “it’s not fair” while Kate fumes he is “messing with people’s lives.” But before they can develop this argument, the script segues into a joke: she wears the trousers between them (which explains why they’re divorced) and Kruger boots them out.
Richard’s and Kate’s concept of fairness parlays into mimicking Kruger’s actions. Since he holds the cards, they feel they cannot rely on social reform, the political process, or public opinion to bolster their side. Indeed, they might not have a leg to stand on: although the film does not explain how Kruger bought out the company, Richard hints he is responsible for selling out. He “virtually had the whole company on board” and his co-workers suspect he knew about the consequences. Richard apparently wanted to inflate his stock price, but he sold out to a man he knows nothing about (Kruger’s HR is so secretive visitors must enter a password on the website before they can read about his many charitable works) and now his “shares are worthless.” Having irresponsibly played by the rules—and lost—Richard and Kate justify themselves by playing the victims. This, in turns, legitimizes their violating the law as they kidnap and commit identity theft, burglarize Kruger’s home, and enlist their son to aid them in continual harassment. The film cashes in on the audience’s sympathy: Kruger, the rich, soulless corporate bastard, has gotten away with his “theft” through legal wrangling. Richard and Kate, as “one of us,” is simply getting even.
Kruger is definitely a rotten guy and viewers will no doubt rejoice when his would-be trophy wife jilts him at the altar and Richard and Kate escape with his diamond. However, Kruger remains at large. Indeed, his one real crime—an attempted murder of our heroes—has a clumsy resolution with Brosnan, Thompson, and Kruger’s fiancé Manon raising fists in victory before parting ways. Kruger is never seen again and Richard and Kate easily shrug off their near-death after destroying any evidence of Kruger’s wrongdoing. The villain’s awkward escape from any reprisal belies the reinforcement of status quo. Nothing has changed. When his world is not enough, Kruger can repeat his corporate maneuvers and get away with it again. His corporate empire remains fully intact.
The Love Punch: Does Crime Pay?
After fencing the hot jewel, Richard and Kate split their spoils. However, their theft is a crime—one which they recognize repeatedly throughout the movie. “Payback is a beach,” the trailer says, but even our heroes know they can’t smuggle a suitcase full of money through customs, so they disperse the cash through to their former co-workers and neighbors before settling for a renewed honeymoon in Europe. In this feel-good ending, their world also remains unchanged: Richard is unemployed and has no pension; his co-workers, despite their happy faces when checking their ATMS, have no jobs or future; and, after they blow their cash on their European getaway, Richard and Kate will end up back where they started. Their problems may even grow worse: should Kruger seek legal action and the police trace the bills, the entire cast may find themselves in jail. Kruger will buy back his lost jewel and Richard and Kate, now with criminal records in France, England, and the United States, are worse off than before. The Love Punch ends with a joyless valorization of American class dynamics.
Instead of allowing for a discussion or critique of the underlying economic structure which allowed Kruger to screw his employees’ lives, the film settles for instant gratification. The picture heralds an emotional callousness through all of the characters. Kruger may personify the ugly corporate stereotype, but at least he’s honest with his portrayal. He may actually even love his fiancé, Manon: his only “crime” against his wife was inviting business partners to their wedding. Surrounded by hundreds of rich snobs, she balks at the inclusion of two strangers. Manon herself symbolizes the American entitlement mentality. A French siren who does not even recognize her family members—allowing the English-accented Thompson to sneak in as a distant cousin—Manon plays off Kruger as a gold-digger who sees diamonds as a girl’s best engagement present. When she decides he isn’t worth it, she tells him she has sold the rock to help impoverished orphans in Calcutta—a far cry from Richard’s and Kate’s own university-stranded kids. But the audience, and Kruger, see through Manon’s lie and the film gives no impression that, should she fall in love with another rich sugar daddy, she won’t give the destitute another thought. After all, she claims she sold the diamond as “a test, to see if you really love me,” not to help children. His response: “You’re crazy”—a fair assessment since she calls of the wedding because of her feelings toward him, not the reverse. In this dog-eat-dog world, none of the characters have faith in the authorities, their surrounding society, or even human kindness. Manon saves our heroes, but then drives off, leaving them to hike back to town. “She can take care of herself,” Richard says. No doubt.
Is The Love Punch a Love Story?
The Love Punch is indeed capable of delivering a message. Thompson dissuades Manon from marrying Kruger, telling her “liking them is much more important than loving them, actually. Love is easy to fall into. Liking is much harder.” But the psychologist undermines her own message when she hops into bed with a young man whom she just met and clearly likes, but not loves. He enjoys the “experience” of older women; she likes his boat and wants to make her ex jealous. She fails, since nobody seems to care about her little tryst—or vice versa in an opening scene where Richard’s most recent lover casually dumps him for a younger model. Nobody cares much about anything in this movie—except money. To do so would require an emotional depth that is out of their league. Richard’s and Kate’s son, Matt, raises an initial qualm about stealing other people’s identities to aid Mom and Dad, but their parents—and the audience—tell him to “accidentally” break the law; to do as they say, not as they do. What they ultimately do is perpetuate the status quo.
The Love Punch tries to show Richard and Kate as real people engaged in a funny, but real, story of everyday blokes trying to reconcile their emotional differences in the midst of economic uncertainty. The execution fails as Joel Hopkins relies on worn movie clichés. Audiences can see the mad-cap theft from amateur thieves, Texan-accented oil baron cowboys, and a gold-digger whose thin skin and heavy mascara belies a heart of gold. The uncaring wealthy corporate stooge is as old as D.W. Griffith’s 1905 morality play A Corner of Wheat. More important is the movie’s philosophical parable—the Golden Rule of mutual exchange—as Richard and Kate try to screw over Kruger just as he did to them. In this light, perhaps Hammurabi’s law code seems more appropriate: according to this movie, the transatlantic rich—from Kruger to his Texan buddies—are emotionally callous and do whatever they please. This justifies Brosnan and Thompson to imitate their social superiors as an act of revenge: an eye for an eye, or, in this case, jewels for hard cash. If Kruger ends up in trouble, there’s no reason to think he won’t send Richard and Kate down the river with him. The unquestioned social values in the picture—class entitlement, instant gratification, and emotional callousness—present a disturbing message about the American character. The Love Punch is a hate story.