September 27, 2007

Feast of Love

Unabashedly sentimental, Benton's latest ensemble piece is also a clear-eyed look at love and longevity

By R. Emmet Sweeney

Feast of Love is a perfectly serviceable romantic drama that slowly builds into something much stranger and even wiser. Directed by veteran Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer) and adapted from Charles Baxter’s novel of the same name, this ensemble piece follows a group of couples in Portland, Ore., as they deal with love and its inevitable fallout. The central node of the group (and the story) is a coffee shop owned by Bradley (Greg Kinnear), a middle-aging nice guy blind to the needs of his wife, played by the gamine Selma Blair. Harry (Morgan Freeman) is his regular customer, a semi-retired English professor with an observant eye for future couplings (which he dutifully reveals to his wife, an indulgent Jane Alexander). He espies Blair making eyes at a lithe softball player, chuckles as young cashier Oscar (Toby Hemingway) swoons for the hippie-chick Chloe (Alexa Davalos) and grumbles at the various infatuations that envelop Brad.

The requisite Freeman voice-over guides us through the ensuing roundelay of beddings and disappointments, utilizing the tone of resigned certainty that he should patent at this point. Benton opts to emphasize the theatricality of the story (inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream), using longer takes, precise choreography in the wide-screen frame and exaggerated lighting. It’s a good fit for the screenplay, which is based largely on coincidence and would probably feel more forced and manipulative had Benton chosen a more realistic style.

Instead, Feast of Love searches for mythic forms in the everyday, and Freeman invokes the Greek gods in his opening ruminations to ease viewers into the symbol-heavy narrative, but even his best efforts can’t save the Oscar-Chloe relationship from descending into the absurd. Their main conflict involves Oscar’s Dad, known by his nickname, “The Bat.” Played as a drunken grease-monkey thug by Fred Ward, he’s a parody of villainy and of the poor; Ward played essentially the same role in Naked Gun: 33 1/3. Thankfully his appearances are brief, and the rest of the film offers more than enough surprises in recompense.

Feast of Love is unabashedly sentimental, but also manages to be clear-eyed about the spotty, earth-bound motivations that can drive such sentiment. In describing Brad’s appeal, his second wife Diana (Radha Mitchell) runs down a list of everything he’s not, defensively claiming that a lack of disqualifiers is a rare thing. She equates love with safety; things fall apart accordingly. Allison Burnett’s script never stoops to finger-pointing, however, instead exposing both of their all-too-human flaws. Another unexpected attribute is the film’s absolute ease with the sexuality of its characters. Everyone has sex, from the young to the old, but it is not treated momentously, it is simply presented as another facet of a loving relationship. There’s a good deal of nudity, but it is mainly celebratory, never prurient.

Consistently combining this celebration of discovery and the sadness of love’s decline, Benton nails a tone of weary affirmation: Things might not work out, but why not try anyway? Oscar and Chloe suffer from “The Bat” and penury, Diana is flailing in a long-term affair, Brad searches (and loses) love in every corner, while Harry mourns a secret loss. All the characters stumble through a miasma of sadness, but somehow find ways to endure. In the end, it is Freeman’s film, tweaking his normal role as the elder statesmen know-it-all. Here his character is thrust against the darkest tragedies and left without any easy answers; his only response, like that of Benton, Baxter and Burnett, is just to keep loving as hard as he can.

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