In this Merchant-Ivory production — uh, pardon me, this Martin Scorsese film — food is presented as lovingly as it was in another Merchant-Ivory effort, 'GoodFellas.' People sit and talk and eat, and the camera pans over sumptuous banquets the way it panned over a collection of guns in the Merchant-Ivory classic 'Taxi Driver.'Okay, enough sarcasm. The point of all this face-stuffing is clear: In the proper New York of the 1870s, the upper class cultivated insatiable appetites to replace the sexual hunger that went unfulfilled. Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) does a lot of wistful staring at Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), the woman he loves, who happens to be the cousin of his boring intended, May Welland (Winona Ryder).
Poor Newland! The Countess stimulates his mind, his heart, and other body parts, while May — who's a nice enough girl, or seems to be — leaves him cold. Then something supposedly fascinating happens: May turns out to be a shrewd manipulator who knows full well what Newland's thinking, and she's determined to hold onto him.
The critical hosannas for Scorsese's drastic-change-of-pace romance (it came right after his hyperbolic thriller Cape Fear) don't match up with what he puts on the screen. He keeps his camera busy, and he creates a stifling atmosphere of messy emotions constantly held in check. But that's what he has always done. He fails, however, to establish any real heat between Newland and the Countess. They just seem like two smart people who laugh knowingly at each other's jokes; then suddenly they're swapping anguished sexual glances. The movie turns preposterous in a hurry.Where is Scorsese's renowned sensual instinct when it matters? The food scenes get our juices flowing more than the romance does.