New Jersey is for lovers: Eight films for Valentine’s Day, set in the state

nj romantic movies

Natalie Portman and Zach Braff co-starred in the 2004 film, “Garden State.”

A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and … yo!

Sadly, although New Jersey lays claim to Walt Whitman, Joyce Kilmer and Allen Ginsberg, the name still doesn’t evoke romance in many poets’ souls. To outsiders who know us only from mob melodramas and bad reality shows, we’re a state of suburban gangsters, hot-tubbing muscleheads, flipped dinner tables and guys who need to get whacked.

You gotta problem with that?

Natives, though, know there is more to the state than made men and not-so-real housewives. And this Valentine’s Day, you will see romantic residents taking advantage of all the amorous adventures Jersey has to offer — tucking into a candlelit meal in a Montclair restaurant, snuggling into a big brass bed at a Cape May inn, or just strolling along a wintry boardwalk down the Shore.

And if you just feel like staying in this Feb. 14? No problem — here are eight home-grown love stories to get you in the mood. (Although, be warned — like real-life romances, a few are a little adult, and not every one has a happy ending.)

Susan Sarandon and Burt Lancaster in “Atlantic City.”

“Atlantic City” (1980)

THE STORY: Lou (Burt Lancaster), an aging gangster, runs a small numbers racket in the now-shabby seaside resort and looks after his old boss’ widow. But then a lovely young waitress (Susan Sarandon) enters his life — along with a stolen stash of cocaine. Determined to prove he’s not quite over the hill, Lou decides to sell the drugs himself — and grab one last romance with her.

FUN FACTS: Sarandon — a proud graduate of Edison High School — had just made “Pretty Baby” with French director Louis Malle, and introduced him to playwright John Guare, who wrote the script.

LOCAL CONNECTIONS: Shot at real locations in the old and then-quickly-changing Atlantic City. A few of the locales still stand, though, including White House Subs and the Knife and Fork Inn. And look for Lucy!

CURRENTLY STREAMING ON: Paramount+, YouTube, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Apple and others.

Rosanna Arquette and Vincent Spano in “Baby It’s You.”

“Baby It’s You” (1983)

THE STORY: Nice Jewish girl Jill Rosen (Rosanna Arquette), Trenton Central High class of ’66, falls for “The Sheik” (Vincent Spano), a local Italian bad boy. She likes theater and literature; he likes fast cars and The Rat Pack. She’s headed for Sarah Lawrence; he’s probably headed for trouble. Will they grow apart, grow together — or, maybe, simply grow up?

FUN FACTS: Hoboken’s John Sayles’ first (and only) studio movie was inspired by producer Amy Robinson’s teen years. After bitter post-production fights with the studio, Sayles went back to indies for good.

LOCAL CONNECTIONS: Filmed all over the state, including Trenton, Asbury Park and Belleville. (The old Upsala College campus in East Orange even doubled for Sarah Lawrence.) And anachronistic or not, Sayles put Springsteen on the soundtrack.

CURRENTLY STREAMING ON: Paramount+, YouTube, Amazon Prime, Apple TV and others

Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson in “Cha Cha Real Smooth.”

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” (2022)

THE STORY: Andy, an aimless recent college grad, moves back home to Jersey where he mostly mopes — until he finds a job working the bar/bat mitzvah circuit as a “motivational dancer” getting the kids up and moving. It’s all pretty Viennese tables and party favors until he falls for an older single mom, a relationship she warns him is not going anywhere — until it does.

FUN FACTS: Star Cooper Raiff, a young filmmaker from Texas, also produced, directed and wrote this charming film, his first.

LOCAL CONNECTIONS: Sorry, this was all shot in Pennsylvania. Too bad. It should have filmed in Passaic — where, in real life, a young Paul Rudd had been a mitzvoth motivational dancer.


Ben Affleck and Joey Lauren Adams in “Chasing Amy.”

“Chasing Amy” (1997)

THE STORY: A straight male (Ben Affleck) and a lesbian (Joey Lauren Adams) fall for each other, and have to figure out what happens next. Kevin Smith’s third film showed a sweeter, more sentimental side — and ironically, after the high-profile failure of “Mallrats,” its success on a low budget helped restart his career. (It would make a good romantic double feature with his underappreciated “Jersey Girl.”)

FUN FACTS: Smith had once dated Adams, who is straight, and so he put his own jealous-guy flaws into Affleck’s character (and into Silent Bob, who actually talks in this movie).

LOCAL CONNECTIONS: Filmed at all the usual Smith hangouts, including Red Bank, Leonardo, Rumson, Brick and Middletown.

CURRENTLY STREAMING ON: Paramount, YouTube, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Apple TV and others

Scarlett Johansson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “Don Jon.”

“Don Jon” (2013)

THE STORY: Jon Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a simple Jersey guy who loves his apartment, his ’72 Chevelle, his buddies, frequent casual hookups with the ladies — and porn, which he is pretty much addicted to. All of which is fine until he starts getting serious about one young woman (Scarlett Johansson) and she gets seriously annoyed with his XXX habit. Can he give up fantasy for reality?

FUN FACTS: Gordon-Levitt also wrote and directed, and the great cast includes Millburn’s Anne Hathaway in a supporting role.

LOCAL CONNECTIONS: Another mostly faux-Jersey film — it was largely shot in California — although look for some Hackensack locations.

CURRENTLY STREAMING ON: Amazon Prime, You Tube, Google Play, Apple TV and others.

“Garden State” (2004)

THE STORY: Zach Braff made his directing debut and co-stars in this indie about a depressed and heavily medicated young man who comes home for his mother’s funeral — and back to a household haunted by childhood guilt and repressed feelings. Lucky for him, he meets Sam (Natalie Portman), an irrepressible eccentric, and starts to feel alive again, and strong enough to face his past.

FUN FACTS: A surprise hit, although Braff was also credited (or blamed) for popularizing the “manic pixie dream girl” cliché, a movie character who is largely there to solve the hero’s problems.

LOCAL CONNECTIONS: Braff’s hometown of South Orange provided most of the locations, but expect to see glimpses of Cranford, Livingston and Maplewood, among other NJ sites.

CURRENTLY STREAMING ON: Hulu, Google Play, Apple TV, Amazon Prime and others.

Michael Cera and Kat Dennings in “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist.”

“Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” (2008)

THE STORY: New Jersey teenager Nick O’Leary (Michael Cera) is still moping over a breakup, so to cheer him up, his friends convince him to head to New York where a hip band is rumored to be planning a secret show. Searching for the group, though, he finds a girl — Norah Silverberg (Kat Dennings) — and over a wild, manic night of misunderstandings, they connect.

FUN FACTS: The smart screenplay, based on a YA novel, was by Holmdel’s Lorene Scafaria, who would go on to write and direct several terrific films of her own, including “Hustlers.”

LOCAL CONNECTIONS: Mostly shot on location in Manhattan — after all, it’s really about that city’s siren call to Jersey kids — but that tender, final kiss at Penn Station will resonate for Garden Staters.

CURRENTLY STREAMING ON: Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu and others.

“The Preacher’s Wife” (1996)

THE STORY: A remake of the 1947 Christmas fantasy about a clergyman, his spouse and a handsome visiting angel — with Courtney B. Vance, Newark native Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington taking over from David Niven, Loretta Young and Cary Grant. Once again, the heavenly visitor solves problems and helps rekindle romance — although this version adds some rousing gospel numbers.

FUN FACTS: Houston’s then-husband Bobby Brown sings on the soundtrack, and her mom Cissy gets a supporting part. (Lionel Richie makes his movie debut here, too.)

LOCAL CONNECTIONS: Technically, the film is set in Manhattan — but the preacher’s pulpit is in Newark’s Trinity United Methodist Church (whose congregants appear as extras) and the production shot in Paterson and Jersey City, as well.

CURRENTLY STREAMING ON: YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime, Apple TV and others.


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