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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

The Emma Trap

What is the nature of inspiration? How elastic is its definition? How large a distance can stretch between inspiration and inspiree before the entire concept snaps?

I found myself pondering these deep philosophical questions as I watched Hallmark’s latest Jane Austen-themed movie, Playing Cupid, which aired Saturday night and is available to view online until Wednesday. According to the announcement preceding the broadcast, the movie was “inspired by the classic novel Emma,” but the resemblance between the two works is notional. It’s not a matter of apples and oranges; it’s more like apples and table lamps.

Jane Austen’s Emma, as you may recall, is the story of a rich, marriageable young woman who schemes to match up her acquaintances, fails to do so, overlooks a real romance blossoming secretly right under her nose, and nearly misses her own chance at love with an old friend before she is chastened out of her arrogance and entitlement.

Playing Cupid is the story of a middle-school girl who starts a matchmaking business for a school project, successfully pairs off her classmates, cleverly maneuvers her single father and her hot teacher toward happy coupledom, and ends up with the boy she’s been crushing on throughout. Although Janeites may giggle at the opening shot – the exterior of a building prominently labeled “Austen Middle School” – that’s the beginning and end of the literary parallels, unless you think The Parent Trap is also “inspired by the classic novel Emma.”

In fact, as the credits make clear, Playing Cupid isn’t based on Emma, at least not directly; it’s based on a 2016 middle-grades novel by Jenny Meyerhoff, originally called I’m With Cupid. (The book, which I haven’t read, has now been renamed Playing Cupid, no doubt to capitalize on the movie tie-in.) Meyerhoff’s book, whose dedication reads “For Emma,” may indeed be an Emma fanfic: the online descriptions suggest that, in foregrounding the romantic doubts and dilemmas of the matchmaking central character, it comes closer to the arc of Austen’s original.

For Hallmark purposes, however, the main storyline concerns the adults: new-in-town teacher Kerri Fox (Laura Vandervoort) and single dad David Martinez (Nicholas Gonzalez), who runs a Mexican restaurant with the on-the-nose name of Cantina Corazón. (“Food for the heart,” he helpfully explains, for those of us who may not know enough Spanish to get the point).

In keeping with the traditional structure of Hallmark movies, one of the two romantic partners must embrace intuition and living in the moment (“We learn so much about ourselves when we climb out on a limb,” Kerri tells David) while the other must be uptight and driven (“Branches break and people fall every day,” he growls in response). Curiously, Kerri has recently broken up with an inattentive workaholic named Adam, while David is a year into a divorce from a woman called Eva. Don’t ask me what the Biblical symbolism is all about; I’m just putting it out there.

But that’s it for Fun With Names: Disappointingly, the proceedings include none of the Janeite Easter eggs with which Hallmark typically studs its Austen productions – no Woodhouse Hardware, no characters named Isabella or Frank, no sly update of the surprise piano delivery. Left with nothing but the deeply predictable story arc – will Kerri and David ice their budding romance to avoid confusing his young daughter? Will Kerri give up on her dreams of love and move back home to Oregon? What do you think? -- the viewer must instead content herself with a metaproject: observing how Hallmark translates its Christmas movie template into the radically different medium of a Valentine’s Day movie.

For Christmas, as we know, our protagonists must decorate a tree; here, they must tie ribbons around candygrams for the field-trip fundraiser. For Christmas, they must jointly plan a party featuring elves and Santa; here, they must plan a speed-dating event. Baking Christmas cookies morphs into rolling out heart-shaped tortillas. Mole sauce takes the place of hot chocolate. You get the idea.

Still, Playing Cupid is by no means the worst of Hallmark’s Austen dramas. (That title remains firmly in the possession of my old friend Unleashing Mr. Darcy.) The acting is decent, the production values are slightly less shoddy than usual, and the adult couple is granted two reasonably hot kissing scenes – at least, hot by Hallmark standards. I wouldn’t call the movie good, exactly, but I did not experience physical pain as I watched. This counts as progress. Or as evidence that years of watching Hallmark Austen movies has dulled my sensibilities. You decide.

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