by David Cornelius
“Casanova” is a soufflé of a film, light and airy, sweet, delicious. No nutritional value, really, just a sugary treat that could fall apart at any minute, but with the right chef, could also turn out to be a complete delight.It’s a costume comedy about the legendary lothario (ah, alliteration!), courtesy director Lasse Hallström (“The Cider House Rules,” “Chocolat”), who takes the story far less seriously than he probably should, although all things considered, this turns out to be a good thing. Gone is the stuffiness of most costume affairs, replaced with a breezy attitude, quick pace, and eagerness to please. Granted, some of the slapstick is so over-the-top that it doesn’t quite belong, but wouldn’t you rather have that than some lifeless, charmless period snoozer?
"A dizzyingly sweet treasure."
In the title role we find Heath Ledger, whose unbridled giddiness is a complete change of pace from his navel-gazing “Brokeback Mountain” role. (The near-mumbling and the iffy accent work are still present, though.) This Casanova is indeed the ladies’ man and a threat to the Catholic Church. The high cost of a night with the infamous womanizer? Eternal damnation. “Seems fair,” declares one lucky victim.
Thanks to a friend in the local government, Casanova is granted a chance to clean up his life. Find a bride, live a respectable life for a change. Which would be easy, if not for the fact that as soon as he finds an acceptable fiancée, he falls in love with Francesca (Sienna Miller), whose feminist attitudes might suggest a lazy (“has the great Casanova finally met his match?!”), anachronistic (“see, ladies? Casanova really wanted a modern gal!”) approach to the screenplay - if they weren’t handled so winningly.
Indeed, that’s the secret to the film: everything here is corny and silly and overplayed, but the cast and crew are so busy winking at us the whole time that we can’t help but grin. In another film, the scene in which Casanova juggles both women during the masquerade ball would be as tired and strained as it was when Greg tried the same thing on “The Brady Bunch.” But with Hallström’s light touch and the cast’s eager willingness to make the whole thing a grand celebration of light comedy, we’re won over. The material may be old hat, but since everyone’s having such a blast with it on screen, the dizziness pours out onto the audience, and we’re swept away by every amusing turn.
And there are turns aplenty, with the bulk of the plot following Casanova’s grand schemes; at story’s peak, the lover assumes five separate identities, which he can play upon depending on the person he is addressing. The script (by Jeffrey Hatcher and Kimberly Simi, from a story by Simi and Michael Cristofer) is at its best when handling as many curious plans as possible; there’s a great joy to be found in watching Ledger’s character smoothly outwit his rival, the Catholic inquisitor Pucci (Jeremy Irons).
(It’s strange, by the way, to see the Inquisition played for belly laughs, but it earns them, both in witty satire and broad physical comedy. Who knew?)
Ledger is quite captivating in the main role, which is fortunate for him, considering the actor is easily overwhelmed by the impressive supporting cast. Irons, as always, makes a marvelous villain, and this time, he’s allowed to camp it up - he’d twirl a moustache if he had one, and you can see it on his face that he’s loving every second of it. Miller makes for an enchanting leading lady, and Lena Olin, as Francesca’s mother, gets to be wicked without becoming too unlikable. Stand-up comic Omid Djalili, while receiving the majority of the film’s limpest gags, also gets some of its best, and his character is so inviting that you can’t help but grin every time he appears.
Stealing the show from all of them, however, is Oliver Platt, whose performance as Francesca’s buffoon of a fiancé becomes the most memorable thing about the film. Here, Platt hams it up with exceptional comic gusto, his every move worth a giggle, his every word earning a laugh. He is the rich fool personified, although staying true to the lighthearted nature of the film, we soon grow to love him, cheering for him by film’s end. Never has a lard mogul (don’t ask) been so much fun in the movies.
There’s so much else to love about this movie - the lavish costumes and sets, the lush photography, the lovely music (as borrowed from composers old and new) - that you’re never bothered with the fact that the whole thing is corny and cheesy and hammy and other words that involve a food and a y. And the ending! Oh, the ending, which is in dire need of a revisit to the editing booth (it could lose a good ten minutes, at least), and which contains scenes so ridiculously melodramatic that it’s impossible to take it seriously, even though it’s the one scene in the movie that asks us to do just that.Ah, but again, none of that matters in the least. For “Casanova” is such a sheer delight that every fault gets swept away by the stubborn glee of it all. It is a soufflé, light and empty. I never stopped smiling while devouring the whole thing.
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originally posted: 01/06/06 00:34:30