Love, Actually, Isn't Like This
Director Robert Benton, best-known for his zeitgeisty divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer, has tapped into more than a few current trends in Feast of Love. There are the interlocking ministories, à la Crash; the different color filters for different scenes (happy moments in yellow, sad ones in blue), à la Traffic. And now that dessert bars are all the rage, he's decided to serve a film feast consisting only of sweets: a smorgasbord of cream puffs and treacle tarts, all topped with a bracing smear of marshmallow fluff.
Based on a 2000 novel by then-University of Michigan prof Charles Baxter, the film transposes the setting from an idealized Ann Arbor to an idealized Portland — a glowing little town where all the women are strong, the men good-looking, and the children above-average. More to the point, in Feast's Portland, men from all walks of life play touch football on the grassy lawns of Portland State University while philosophy professors mingle with coeds in a coffee shop called Jitters. The café in question is run by Bradley (Greg Kinnear), an eager, doggy fellow who has no luck with the ladies. After his first wife leaves him for another woman (Selma Blair and Stana Katic, respectively, who pop in for an obligatory lesbian sex scene before disappearing from the movie), Bradley immediately gets hitched again to Diana (Radha Mitchell), a real-estate agent who doesn't believe in true love.
In a movie titled Feast of Love, this has to be the first sign of trouble, and indeed, the course of married life does not run smoothly for these two. Meanwhile, Bradley's two troubled young baristas, Oscar (Toby Hemingway) and Chloe (Alexa Davalos), are falling in mad, mad love over the cappuccinos that they decorate with foam hearts every morning. Their feelings for each other never wane — their certainty is at once adorable and boring — but they have other troubles to deal with, including semi-poverty (in one confusing subplot, they are so strapped for cash that they make a sex tape) and the ominous presence of Oscar's father (Fred Ward), a leering caricature of a knife-wielding drunk. But two couples do not make a 2007 intersecting-story-line movie, so, yes, there's yet another relationship stuffed in here: Morgan Freeman and Jane Alexander are an aging professor and his supportive wife who share a secret sorrow. Believe it or not, they're in love too: old-people love, which means that they hug a lot and drink wine together in their creaky-floored, tastefully decorated Victorian home.
At first, Feast seems to lay out an interesting project for itself — to catalog the look and feel of relationships at different stages in our lives. But for a film that purports to be an epic consideration of love in our time, Feast is strikingly unthoughtful and uninterested in any but the most obvious kind of romantic love. In this rosy, cozy world, either you're in love or you're not; either you fall for someone in the blink of an eye or you never do. Bradley, Diana, Oscar, and Chloe move in and out of infatuation with the fierce capriciousness of Shakespearean lovers.
Indeed, although the plot has nothing in common with A Midsummer Night's Dream, the mood of the film constantly evokes it, from the dew-drenched magic of moonlit Portland (several characters are insomniacs) to Freeman's world-weary narration ("Lord, what fools these mortals be!" we keep expecting him to up and declaim). Freeman is as compelling as always, playing a wry, wise observer (as always), but not even his voice at its gravest and most gravelly can save dialogue like "Sometimes you don't know you've crossed a line until you're already on the other side."
Kinnear struggles with the genial, "I'm a small-town coffee-shop owner" blandness of his character. "Do you think love is a trick, or do you think it's the only meaning there is to this crazy dream?" Bradley asks several women. This lame dichotomy is meant to be a litmus test — his true soul mate is supposed to pick the latter, of course, and by the end of the movie, we are too. Instead, the question becomes a metaphor for the one-note sugar high of the film itself, where any greater meaning is obscured by a sticky-sweet approach to love, with a cherry on top.
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