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The Love Letter

Review by David Luty
Posted 21 May 1999

  Directed by Peter Chan

Starring Margaret Ann Brady, Kate Capshaw,
Walter Covell, Blythe Danner, Ellen DeGeneres,
Patrick Donnelly, Lucas Hall, Erik Jensen,
Juliane Nicholson, Tom Everett Scott,
Tom Selleck, and Gloria Stuart

Written by Maria Maggenti

The Love Letter is a modest but carelessly constructed romantic comedy, a combination that makes for an excruciatingly flat experience.

Kate Capshaw must have wanted a star vehicle for herself real bad. And real fast. Whether its making was rushed or not, The Love Letter, a failed attempt at wistful romantic comedy, feels as if it were put together will all the love and care of fast food. And with rushing, the end result is something that doesn't move at all. The filmmakers could have gotten off to a running start by making their movie off of an outline rather than a script. Based upon the novel by Cathleen Schine, the adapted screenplay by Maria Maggenti is full of what Capshaw, Maggenti, and director Peter Ho-Sun Chan must have considered the good parts of the book. Unfortunately, they didn't bother themselves with the context, and so we end up with lots of eventful character interactions surrounded by flat, dead air. Some of that air is dedicated to capturing the New England air of the fictional town Loblolly by the Sea, but most of it comes courtesy of Capshaw's mopey performance, which has her character wandering around in a perpetually moonstruck daze.

It's difficult not to be cynical about these things. Much has been made of Capshaw's go-getter initiative in acquiring herself a leading role in a film by buying the rights to a book (even though initiative is pretty easy to come by when you're married to the most powerful filmmaker in the universe). The character she went out and grabbed for herself is Helen, the quiet, half-heartedly celibate but still glamorously pretty owner of the town bookstore, with co-workers prone to talk about how amazing she is while a studly younger guy (Tom Everett Scott) and a slightly frumped up Tom Selleck moon over her every move. If the story weren't so unremittingly unflattering in its flatness, you might think this was a vanity project.

The premise indicated by the title (and the marketing) is actually a red herring. Helen finds the letter early on, assumes it's from Johnny (Scott), and he assumes the reverse. But there is so little personality drawn from either character, and their behavior changes so little after the letter comes into play, that it's difficult to feel any actual impact from the letter. The film's true focus is on Helen and her ineffectual, ineffective search for romantic love, a search so ineffectual it's barely noticeable. It shows itself in the spotty tracking of four of her relationships, which are four more than the script is capable of handling. There is the May-December fling with Johnny, the repressed romance with her longtime friend and fellow divorcee George (Selleck), a best friendship with very heterosexual bookstore worker Janet (Ellen DeGeneres), and a rocky connection to her mother Lillian (Blythe Danner), who Helen believes feels something less than love for her daughter. That particular character issue is conveyed with a single off-the-cuff line and one jaw-dropper of a revelation that comes from way out in left field. And left field is par for the course here. Characters and conflicts pop into the story without much rhyme or reason, and then disappear for long stretches of screen time. When Helen and Janet argue over the letter, and Janet tells her that she's sick of this, and the first thought that pops into your head is, "uh, sick of what?" you know you're in for a long haul.

Despite the uninspired choice of opening and closing the film with Louis Armstrong singing "I'm in the Mood for Love," The Love Letter thankfully shuns tidy, Love Boat-type romantic resolutions, and reaches for a more mature wistfulness. But it is much too sloppy and flavorless for maturity. It's just dull. With a lack of any real romantic or dramatic movement, it is less wistfully mature than it is fatally wispy.  

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