Oct 7, 2007

On Feast of Love

Back with another stately if ultimately underwhelming literary adaptation, director Robert Benton’s choice of material here is something of an enigma. The director of Kramer vs. Kramer, Billy Bathgate and The Human Stain is best known as the screenwriter of Bonnie and Clyde, a film infused with an urgency that must be attributed mostly to Arthur Penn’s; Even at his best, Benton’s films have a demure, laid back quality that often sacrifices the density and texture of his top notch source materials. This was never more evidence than in his timid, uninvolving adaptation of Philip Roth’s masterful The Human Stain and although I haven’t read Charles Baxter’s novel Feast of Love, I suspect that Mr. Benton hasn’t quite captured the appeal of Mr. Baxter’s National Book Award nominated novel.

As the film opens, a Portland, Ore coffee house owner (Greg Kinnear) is happily married to a beautiful young softball player (Selma Blair) who has quickly develops the hots for her opposing team’s shortstop (Stana Katic) after a particularly rough tag at second base. The sexless Kinnear character is completely unaware, but not his older, philosophy professor buddy Harry (Morgan Freeman), who watches the sultry lady seduce the married woman at a local bar as the four sit together in a booth, right “underneath her husband’s nose” he tells his own wife (Jane Alexander), both of whom are dealing with the recent drug overdose of their only son in disparate, conflicting ways.

The narrative of the film follows Kinnear from one romance to another (the Blair character inexplicably disappears from the film at this point) and picks up a subplot involving his pair of employees, David (Toby Hemingway) and Chloe (Alexa Devalos) who fall for each other at first sight through the Starbucksesque coffee house’s oversized windows. David lives with an abusive father (Fred Ward) and the couple’s attempts at self-sufficiency through various means (including making a pornography tape) is intercut with Freeman and Alexander’s wandering toward some sort of catharsis and Kinnear’s eventual marriage to Diana (Radha Mitchell, never more glamourous) who, despite her affection for Kinnear’s Bradley, carries on an affair with a married man (Billy Burke) who does all the right things to her beneath and above the sheets.

The film is loaded with moments that try to manufacture serenity and grace by pumping Jeff Buckley on the sound track and throwing lots of diffuse, golden light on the characters, but the film is emotionally overcooked and aesthetically banal. Despite its admirable lack of cynicism and a genuine humanistic impulse on the part of the director, these characters never jump off the screen and grab us in the way they might in a film by an Oliver Assayas or Michel Gondry.

When not trained on Kinnear and Freeman playing variations of characters they could both play in a coma (the sexless middle American guy and the wise old black sage respectively), Benton’s camera never tires of watching his beautiful cabal of actresses in various forms of sexual embrace, but the film feels so unattached to the contemporary anxieties involving courtship, marriage and urbanity that it achieves a timeless quality that can only be seen in the pejorative – wouldn’t David and Chloe exchange text messages and have myspace profiles instead of going to have sex on a football field that seems mysteriously open to the young fornicators of Portland?