It's Christmastime in New York City and two commuters take the train into the heart of the Big Apple to think about buying presents. Before they set about their tasks, they call their spouses on payphones at the station and to anyone overhearing their conversations it would almost sound as if they were talking to one another, in a strange synchronisation which foreshadows their encounter to come. After a day meeting their best friends, where Frank (Robert De Niro) has lunch with Ed (Harvey Keitel) who drops a bombshell that he's getting divorced, Frank and Molly (Meryl Streep) find their paths cross once again...
That happens in a meet cute ten minutes into Falling in Love, a movie which seemed to confound critics and moviegoers alike that two absolute acting megastars would want to appear in something so purposefully mundane, even televisual. Yet what came across as lightweight to most had hidden virtues for those who wished the big stars of the seventies and eighties, in particular the heavyweight talents snapping up Oscars, would deign to show up in something more traditional like the stars of yesteryear (for that time) would have participated in. And what was more traditional than a simple Hollywood romance?
Naturally there were complications to the plot here, the main one being their characters were married to other people as in the movie's chief inspiration, Brief Encounter, David Lean and Noel Coward's classic romance from around forty years before this was made. However, rather than have the central couple be unhappily married, thereby fuelling the quiet tragedy that society's mores would not allow them to be together, Frank and Molly get along famously with their spouses, and Frank has kids which makes it all the more uncomfortable that he should entertain thoughts of walking away from his contented home life for a fling with Molly, who he doesn't really know all that well, and vice versa.
As for her side of the story, she would have had a daughter to look after but sadly the baby died the previous year, which goes some way to explaining why she might want a change of romantic scenery when her husband Brian (David Clennon) refuses to allow her to have another baby straight away. To make matters yet more stressful, Molly's father (George Martin, but not that George Martin) is terminally ill and she is ill-equipped to cope with another downfall, so you can perceive she sees Frank as an escape from all that, encouraged by her best friend Isabelle (Dianne Wiest) to take advantage of the situation, she being rather more adventurous. So after a mix-up with Christmas presents (the film begins and ends with the festive season) offers them an excuse to talk to each other, a bond develops.
Before you know it, two people who didn't know they were as unhappy as they are forge a romance without letting anyone else know, starting with lunches in the city and tentative arrangements to meet, though most of their meetings circle around that station: no matter what you think of the affair, the scene where they break down and admit they love one another is genuinely affecting. The impression that Falling in Love gives was that in the modern world every relationship was a house of cards waiting to be toppled, and indeed you're not convinced Frank and Molly will stay together even in the end which is bold enough to rewrite the finale of Brief Encounter, which to one point of view could look like the height of Hollywood arrogance. That said, it was testament to De Niro and Streep demonstrating they could indeed play normal folks and do it very well without a hint of the patronising that you did want happiness for these people, and that their confused feelings resolved themselves to some satisfaction. It is a little piffling considering who was featured at this point in time, however. Music by Dave Grusin.