Forget about classic, big-screen romance. You won't find Leonardo DiCaprio embracing Kate Winslet on the deck of the Titanic. In this year's Oscar race, DiCaprio plays a Texas billionaire obsessed with his own bodily fluids, while Winslet baby-sits a guy more interested in kite flying than sex.
To be sure, the cast of characters in this year's Oscar-nominated films are the sort of oddballs that you'd fear meeting on a blind date. We've got a morbidly depressed high school English teacher, a muscle-bound waitress who wants to box and a philandering, heroin-addicted pianist -- not the sort you'd want to bring home to mama.
Still, this year's crop of Best Picture nominees might still offer some heartfelt love lessons, and not just for people looking for romance, but for people looking to live richer lives.
Let's look at "The Aviator," "Finding Neverland," "Million Dollar Baby," "Ray" and "Sideways," and see if they can fill our chocolate hearts with some Valentine's Day inspiration.
1 -- 'The Aviator's' High-Flying Soul Mate
As Howard Hughes and Katherine Hepburn, DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett play larger-than-life, two-of-a-kind lovers, who bring out the best and worst in each other.
"You feel like a little adventure?" the billionaire playboy says as he ushers her onto his fancy plane for a date.
"Do your worst, Mr. Hughes," Hepburn says with abandon. Of course, she ends up piloting the aircraft.
In "The Aviator," a young Hughes romances a string of legendary Hollywood beauties, including Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). But the frenetic redhead Hepburn is obviously his match. And they both recognize it, for good and ill.
"We're not like everyone else," Hepburn tells Hughes. "Too many sharp angles. Too many eccentricities. We have to be very careful not to let people in or they'll make us into freaks."
Perhaps it's a doomed love affair. Both are bent on professional success. Neither seems suited to making sacrifices. Even on that romantic airplane ride, when Hepburn says, "Howard, there's a rather alarming mountain heading our way," it seems more than a bit symbolic that their relationship is heading for a crash.
But Hepburn and Hughes still illustrate the nurturing value of love. She is the first to see the manifestations of the obsessive-compulsive tendencies that would ruin his life, and she tries to help him.
You can tell he still loves her, even later in life, long after their relationship ends. When she's facing blackmailers who are threatening to expose her surreptitious relationship with Spencer Tracy, Hughes flexes his financial muscle to make her problems go away.
"What's the matter?" Tracy asks Hepburn at one point in the film.
"There's just too much 'Howard Hughes' in Howard Hughes," Hepburn says. "That's what's the matter."
Then again, there was an awful lot of Katherine Hepburn in Katherine Hepburn.
2 -- Love Offers 'Ray' of Hope
Della Bea Robinson looked into the eyes of a blind heroin addict and philandering scoundrel, and there she saw the heart of one of the greatest musical artists of the 20th century. It's apparent in "Ray" that there might not have been a Ray Charles worth remembering if not for the woman who held his life together.
In his portrayal of Charles, Jamie Foxx shows the longtime junkie and flawed man behind the legend. He begins shooting up long before he marries Robinson in 1955. And while he's willing to hide it around the house, he simply expects her to accept the needles and the string of girlfriends that would follow him on the road.
"Baby, when I walk out that door I walk out alone in the dark," the singer says in the film. "I'm trying to do something ain't nobody ever done in music and business. But I can't do it if I'm alone everywhere I go. I don't wanna be alone, Bea. Not in my own home. If you don't understand me ... who will?"
The question in "Ray" is how much his wife, played by Kerry Washington, will put up with. By staying with him, is she helping him, enabling him or just frightened of dealing with him?
Yet Robinson proves to be a formidable woman. When one of Charles' girlfriends dies of a drug overdose, she immediately asks about the child that he fathered by that woman.
Charles is amazed. "You knew?" he asks.
Of course she does. She knows more about Charles than Charles himself. When he proves unable to handle his addiction, she holds his hand through recovery.
Charles kicked the heroin habit, though he remained a rover. The movie glances over the end of his life, and in 1977, Robinson left him. Still, he remained drug-free and making music until his death last year, at 73. Perhaps it was a rough road, filled with heartbreaks. But maybe you can't sing "Hit the Road, Jack" until you hear it from a woman you love, whether or not it's your wife.
3 -- Wine, Whining and a Step 'Sideways'
Divorced English teacher Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) is staring failure in the face. He's mourning the novel he'll never get published and the wife who rejected him. As a wedding gift to his college buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church), he takes him on a trip through Northern California's wine country, but it seems more like a handy excuse to get drunk and wallow in middle-aged angst.
A love of wine is the only emotion this shattered man can express. Miles sips a Cabernet and declares it, "Quaffable, but far from transcendent," as his friend placates him with an uninterested nod.
When Miles staggers from the bar to the pay phone, even the oblivious Jack knows he's obsessing over his ex-wife. "Did you drink and dial?" he asks.
In "Sideways" we see the crazy connections that can rescue a broken heart from oblivion. In Maya (Virginia Madsen), Miles finds a kindred spirit who speaks the language of wine.
"What do you think?" Maya asks, after uncorking a bottle.
"I started to appreciate the life of wine, that it's a living thing," she says. "I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing. I like to think about how the sun was shining that summer and what the weather was like. I think about all those people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it's an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now.
"I love how wine continues to evolve, how if I open a bottle the wine will taste different than if I had uncorked it on any other day, or at any other moment. A bottle of wine is like life itself -- it grows up, evolves and gains complexity. Then it tastes so f***ing good."
The bottle Maya uncorks that evening could just as easily have been Miles' heart.
4 -- 'Million Dollar Baby' With a Priceless Father Figure
We have no romance in "Million Dollar Baby," but a fatherly love that is just as powerful.
Clint Eastwood is Frankie, the craggy old boxing manager who tells Hilary Swank that he doesn't train "girlies." Besides, at 31, she's too old to start fighting. His body language screams out, "Go back to being a dirt-poor waitress."
But Swank's Maggie wins the old man's heart -- and any sports fan knows that boxers with heart are the ones that are true champions.
When Swank finally returns to the bleak trailer park where she grew up, Frankie has turned her into a "Million Dollar Baby," but nothing there has really changed. Her mother is still a selfish monster who makes her feel like a loser.
"She grew up knowing one thing," says Morgan Freeman, who plays Frankie's assistant. "She was trash."
Maggie leaves southern Missouri broken-hearted, but her trip home isn't a complete loss, because she leaves with a realization. "I got nobody but you, Frankie," she says. She's found the love of a father.
5 -- 'Finding Neverland' in a Child's Heart
If a grown man befriends children in the park, many people assume the guy has romantic designs on the kid's mother, or they start wondering if his motivations are unwholesome.
Nevertheless, some men simply like to fly kites with children. And in a time with many lonely single parents, kite-flying is a pretty attractive quality in a member of the opposite sex, even if it doesn't lead to romance.
As "Peter Pan" author J.M. Barrie in "Finding Neverland," Johnny Depp makes it clear that he isn't interested in Kate Winslet, despite his failing marriage. He just wants to play with her four boys.
Winslet's character, widower Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, must first fight off rumors that she's sleeping with a married man, and then face accusations that she's opened her home to a pedophile.
"You find a glimmer of happiness in this world, there's always someone who wants to destroy it," Barrie tells her, and at points, it certainly seems like their relationship may bloom into something romantic.
"What's it like, Neverland?" she asks.
"One day, I'll take you there," he says.
Of course, real life is never as good as the movies. In reality, Barrie was a homely, 5-foot man and Llewelyn Davis did not become a widower until after "Peter Pan" hit the British stage. Her fifth child was literally written out of the script.
Still, it's indisputable that Barrie drew from this experience in writing his masterpiece and that he adopted the boys after his friend's death.
Perhaps the film smooths the rough edges of reality, but in a time of fractured families, yearning for a home is more than fantasy.
"We've pretended for some time now that you're a part of this family, haven't we?" Llewelyn Davis tells Barrie. "You've come to mean so much to us all that now. It doesn't matter if it's true. And even if it isn't true, even if that can never be ... ."
"I need to go on pretending ... Until the end ... With you."