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'Feast' doesn't bring enough to the table

Robert Benton's film about love and loss is free of catharsis and is neither funny nor sad.

September 28, 2007|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

Love is a many-splendored thing in Robert Benton's dull romantic fantasy "Feast of Love," though none of its splendors rings true. That's because in the Arcadian, storybook Portland, Ore., in which the movie is set, love is a simple binary system -- it's either on or off, pure or compromised, hot or age-appropriately snuggly. (The last one depends on whether the female half of the couple in question -- or both halves, if they're cute young lesbians -- is young and pretty enough to merit some full frontal nudity and scenes of vigorous sack action.) What it's not is complicated, or nuanced, or interesting.

Based on the novel by Charles Baxter, the movie is ostensibly an exploration of love in its many forms, but mostly it sticks to the credulity-and-patience-straining kind. Morgan Freeman, cast again as a paragon of perfection (just once, it would be great to see him play a spiteful neurotic or a selfish bastard), plays Harry Stevenson, a happily married university professor who, when not at home regaling his loving wife, Esther (Jane Alexander), with stories about youngsters falling in love before his very eyes, hangs out in a local cafe dispensing gems.

The main recipients of his insight are Bradley (Greg Kinnear), the cafe's hangdog owner, and Chloe (Alexa Davalos), a gorgeous orphan who floats into Jitters (Bradley's establishment) seeking employment and falls into the arms of its barista Oscar (Toby Hemingway).

Chloe's mysterious provenance and cryptic conversational style suggest trouble, but the movie soon belies this notion. That's because in the world of "Feast of Love," impoverished 20-year-olds from terrible backgrounds meet cute, mate for life and click neatly into a tight-knit, loving community that's saving a special spot just for them, and trauma gets no traction.

When we meet Bradley, he is living in clueless bliss with his younger wife, Kathryn (Selma Blair), who clearly despises him. Bradley is impervious, however, even after Kathryn and a member of a rival softball team (Stana Katic) exchange meaningful under-the-table caresses within moments of meeting each other. Next thing you know Jenny is picking up Kathryn in her jeep and announcing, "We're going to have such adventures, you and me, Kathryn and Jenny, Jenny and Kathryn," and Bradley is dumped. No sooner has he recovered from the blow than he falls in love at first sight with Diana (Radha Mitchell), a real estate agent with a married lover.

If this sounds promising, it's not. Kinnear has perfected the role of the deluded sad-sack, but the difference here is that the movie unabashedly admires him for these qualities, shares his delusions and holds him up as a romantic ideal. He bounces back from each betrayal with an equanimity of the last relationship ("Maybe Kathryn was meant to be with women!") and dives right in again, headfirst.

We're meant to find this special, but it comes across as dumb and desperate. He and Harry may spend all day exchanging platitudes over cappuccinos, but Bradley learns nothing about himself. Similarly, Harry is mourning a death and blaming himself, but you'd never know it aside from the scene when he mourns the death and blames himself. For a movie about love and loss, "Feast of Love" is amazingly free of catharsis, which has the unfortunate effect of making it neither funny nor sad.

The script, adapted by Allison Burnett, weaves three interlocking stories in unlikely ways and relies on random acts of violence, fate and God for dramatic complications that the characters aren't fleshed-out enough to whip up on their own. This impulse reaches its absurdist apex in the character of Bat (Fred Ward), Toby's drunken, psychotic, knife-wielding father, as well as in the tragic predictions of a $20 psychic.

Benton co-wrote "Bonnie and Clyde" and directed "Kramer vs. Kramer," which seemed so perfectly tuned to its era as to define it, but his eye for detail fails him here, and "Feast of Love" suffers from the worst kind of nonspecificity. Underneath the characters' surface diversity, they are flat and one-note. Nor does the story -- which loosely references Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- play as comedy, tragedy or farce. Instead, it plays like an uneasy mix of the three, a parade of archetypes grimly embodying their main characteristics against a bogus setting.


"Feast of Love." MPAA Rating: R, for strong sexual content, nudity and language. Running Time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. In general release.

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