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Something's Goethe to Give

Young Goethe in Love, a biopic of Germany's supreme genius, is pretty but pretty bad

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There's nothing wrong with a romantic comedy. We're long overdue for a good one. There's nothing wrong with a ribald bodice-ripper.

And there's certainly nothing wrong with a biopic about Johann Goethe, the rarely considered supreme genius of literature and theory.

Unfortunately there's everything wrong with Young Goethe in Love, the sophomoric mess that is high on hijinks and soft on sophistication.

The first clue is the title. Released as Goethe! in Germany (what's up with the exclamation point?), American distributors re-titled the film as Young Goethe in Love, with a not-so-subtle nod to the 1999 Oscar winner Shakespeare in Love. For the record, Shakespeare in Love is one of my least favorite films of all time, yet Goethe in Love makes its American cousin seem dimensionally transcendental.

In the opening moments of the film, a 23-year-old Goethe (Alexander Fehling) is bounced out of law school for being a low-achieving dullard. He promptly steps out to the university's commons and drags his feet through the snow to write a message to his professors who are looking on from a second-floor window: "Leck mich im arsch," which roughly translates to "Kiss my ass."

Clearly we are not in store for a consideration of German scholarship.

Instead we follow Goethe to the backwater town of Wetzlar, where he serves as a legal clerk. Goethe is portrayed as an Oktoberfest party boy, always late, and usually bumping into something or someone. During one of his bumpier escapades, he collides with Lotte Buff (Miriam Stein), a spirited girl who lives just this side of poverty. A lusty roll in the mud follows and they are bonded forever but (horrors) she is promised to another man.

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In one of the film's rarely tender moments, Goethe and his superior (the man to whom Buff is beholden) are sharing the intimate details of their respective love lives. But in an instant, the two recognize that they're both talking about the same woman. It's a very well crafted, powerfully acted scene. But therein lies a problem: It has nothing in common with the rest of the movie, which plays more like a ridiculous Matthew McConaughey romp.

Young Goethe looks good. The scenes are drenched in sunny, handsome earth-tones and the costume budget must have readily surpassed many other films' entire budgets. But just because a film is watchable doesn't make it acceptable at today's box office prices.

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