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Movie Review

To Whom It May Concern: 'Letter' Is a Real Charmer


"The Love Letter" is a romantic comedy of much charm and wisdom, set in a storybook New England village, that takes a bemused look at the capriciousness of fate in determining the course of our lives.

Kate Capshaw, Blythe Danner, Ellen DeGeneres, Geraldine McEwan, Julianne Nicholson, Tom Everett Scott, Tom Selleck and Gloria Stuart form a sterling ensemble cast that glows under the breezy yet tart direction of Peter Ho-Sun Chan, a top Hong Kong director making his Hollywood debut.

Chan turns out to be an excellent choice for bringing Maria Maggenti's brisk script from Cathleen Schine's novel to the screen. He's established his flair for bringing both humor and seriousness to the often confused and conflicted passions of the heart in a series of sparkling successes, including "Comrades: Almost a Love Story" and "He's a Woman, She's a Man."

Capshaw's Helen is the film's key figure, an attractive divorcee with a child to support, a bookstore to operate and a stately, though run-down, home to maintain. Luckily, she has her good friend Janet (DeGeneres), who's as organized and efficient as Helen is not, to manage the store, where Scott's Johnny and Nicholson's Jennifer have summer jobs.

Sitting on a couch in the store to go through the day's mail, Helen comes across a letter, sans envelope, salutation or signature, wedged between the cushions. It is a scorching declaration of love that hits Helen like a truck, awakening in her a deep sense of longing that starts her daydreaming. She becomes convinced that Johnny, a tall, handsome, sweet-natured 20-year-old, has sent the letter to her, and a quick turn of the plot makes Johnny thinks she's intended it for him.

Learning about the letter, Janet quite logically points out that it could just as easily have been intended for her as for Helen, and Janet is hoping that it came from Selleck's George, the local fireman who's just going through a divorce. (Alas, he's been secretly in love with Helen for years; however, this doesn't automatically mean that he wrote the letter.) Meanwhile, Jennifer pines for Johnny. Threading through the story is McEwan's Miss Scattergoods, a chain-smoking aristocrat, astringent and independent. Just as Helen is being carried away by dreams of a man half her age, her free-spirited grandmother Eleanor (Stuart) arrives--with her period furniture no less--and her globe-trotting daughter, Lillian (Danner).

It's a bit startling to see Danner cast as Capshaw's mother, even though Danner has been "aged" for the role (Danner is only about 11 years older than Capshaw). No matter: Danner is such a skilled actress that we don't dwell on the fact that she's too young to play Capshaw's mother.

No one familiar with this large cast can be surprised at how effective everyone is in taking the crisply defined roles in often quite unexpected directions.

More than anyone else, Selleck stands out as a man who is in love but is diffident about showing it. This means Selleck must hold back his emotions when he's with Helen yet reveal to us the depth of his feelings for her, and Selleck makes George's predicament at once funny and poignant. In any event, Selleck's approach pays off handsomely.

Photographed by Tami Reiker, "The Love Letter" captures the beauty and mellowness of its locale (Rockport, Mass.) and boasts graceful yet understated costume and production design by, respectively, Tracy Tynan and Andrew Jackness. Luis Bacalov's score complements both the film's emotional complexity and its buoyant mood and tempo.

"The Love Letter" suggests how vulnerable we are to pure chance but also makes the point that there's something to be said for making declarations of love directly to the other person and not entrusting them to written missives.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for some sexuality, nudity and strong language. Times guidelines: The film is suitable for mature older children.

'The Love Letter'

Kate Capshaw: Helen

Blythe Danner: Lillian

Ellen DeGeneres: Janet

Geraldine McEwan: Miss Scattergoods

Julianne Nicholson: Jennifer

Tom Everett Scott: Johnny

Tom Selleck: George

Gloria Stuart: Eleanor

A DreamWorks Pictures presentation of a Sanford/Pillsbury production. Director Peter Ho-Sun Chan. Producers Sarah Pillsbury, Midge Sanford, Kate Capshaw. Executive producers Beau Flynn, Stefan Simchowitz. Screenplay by Maria Maggenti; from the novel by Catherine Schine. Cinematographer Tami Reiker. Editor Jacqueline Cambas. Music Luis Bacalov. Costumes Tracy Tynan. Production designer Andrew Jackness. Art director Carl Sprague. Set decorator Tracey A. Doyle. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.

In general release in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

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