Feast of Love

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/28/07 00:00:00

"Mr Skin Will Love It And You Might Too."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Over the course of the eleven films that he has made since “Bad Company,” his 1972 directorial debut, it almost seems as if there are two Robert Bentons out there. The first is the somber and sober-minded creator of important and serious-minded works in which you can feel the strain of his artistic efforts in virtually every frame–the works of this Benton range from the solidly made but unspectacular likes of “Kramer Vs. Kramer” and “Places From the Heart” (yes, I know that both of those films took home numerous Oscars, including three for Benton himself, but have you actually tried watching them lately?) to such pretentious, bloodless and bizarrely miscast misfires as “Billy Bathgate” and his last film, “The Human Stain.” The second, and in my mind preferable, Benton is a looser one who is less concerned with making a lasting and important work of art than he is in telling an interesting story with quirky and likable characters–this Benton has given such nifty entertainments as the underrated “Nadine” and “Twilight” and the instantly beloved “The Late Show” and “Nobody’s Fool.” (The one film of his that doesn’t quite fit into either of these categories is 1982's “Still of the Night,” a deliberately chilly thriller in the style of French master Claude Chabrol that most people–including Benton himself–tend to dismiss but which I find endlessly fascinating, mostly because it is so utterly unlike anything else in his filmography.)Right from the start, it is obvious that his latest film, the oddball romantic comedy-drama “Feast of Love” is a product of that second Benton and it is all the better for it. In bringing Charles Baxter’s novel to the big screen, he infuses the material with the kind of life and energy that was completely lacking in “The Human Stain” and while it may not be his best work by a long shot, it is easily his most sheerly engaging film since “Nobody’s Fool.”

The story is essentially a contemporary riff on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that collects a series of loosely entwined love stories involving a group of people living in the same Oregon college town. We are introduced to one seemingly ideal couple, local coffee-shop owner Bradley (Greg Kinnear) and his wife Kathryn (Selma Blair), but it only takes a few seconds to notice that Bradley is blissfully unaware of his wife’s growing disenchantment, even when Jenny (Stana Katic), a member of Kathryn’s softball league, blatantly hits on her while he sits at the same table. After Bradley, one of those people who is more obsessed with the idea of being in love than in being in love with any specific person, presents her with a decidedly thoughtless birthday present, Kathryn leaves him for good and runs off with Jenny. Bradley is distraught and fears that he will never love again until the moment that gorgeous realtor Diana (Radha Mitchell) walks into both his coffee shop and his heart–before long, he has both a new house and a new wife. Alas, Bradley’s powers of perception are as clouded as ever and he doesn’t realize that for the entire time that she has known him, Diana has been having an affair with the married David (Billy Burke) and essentially only married Bradley because David wouldn’t leave his wife for her.

While Bradley’s tale of woeful wooing is meant to represent the ups and downs of contemporary romance, it is offset by two other relationships that represent its two extremes–the giddiness of first love in full flower and the steady gracefulness of a relationship that has weathered decades of ups and downs and has become stronger as a result. The former involves Chloe (Alexa Davalos), a young woman who wanders into Bradley’s shop for a job and instantly catches the eye of barista Oscar (Toby Hemingway). Despite all odds–such as their poverty and Oscar’s problems with a former drug addiction and his violent father (Fred Ward)–their love manages to grow stronger by the day (they even try to make a homemade sex tape in order to make some money and are told that it isn’t selling because they seem too much in love to be convincing as porn performers), even after Chloe gets some deeply disturbing news about Oscar. On the other end of the spectrum is Harry (Morgan Freeman), a former university professor who has seen it all, experienced his own triumphs and tragedies and now offers sage advice–not always taken–to the various lovers while reporting on their activities to his wife, Esther (Jane Alexander).

Immediately after watching “Feast of Love,” my feelings towards it were decidedly mixed, mostly due to the unevenness of Allison Burnett’s screenplay. The mix of whimsy and serious drama is sometimes kind of jarring as the shifts in tone seem a little too predetermined to be convincing. Too many plot threads are introduced that are either ridiculous (such as the porn tape nonsense) or never fully developed (especially the ones involving the characters played by Selma Blair and Fred Ward) and Benton too often falls into the trap of allowing the soundtrack to underline the emotion of the scenes just a little too much for their own good–the worst example being a romantic montage scored to the Frames’ “Falling Slowly,” a moment that might have worked if it hadn’t already served as the musical center of “Once.” The biggest problem is that Benton and Burnett constantly seem to be edging towards some kind of grand and profound statement that it never quite gets around to making–the final scenes in particular are a bit of a mess–I understand the tragicomic mix that it is aiming for but it doesn’t quite work.

At the same time, while “Feast of Love” may not entirely work as a whole, there are a lot individual elements that I enjoyed. Although this will not go down as one of Benton’s great works, he handles the material with the easy grace and elegance of a master fully in control of his craft. I liked virtually all of the performances from the sweet awkwardness of Kinnear to the grave stateliness of Freeman and Alexander to the cheerful giddiness of Davalos and Hemingway to the unapologetic flintiness of Mitchell and Burke. I also, admired the lush visual look courtesy of cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau–this is the kind of movie that could make almost anyone want to pack up and head out to the Pacific Northwest.

Most of all, I was struck and pleased by the straightforward and matter-of-fact approach that “Feast of Love” takes towards the sexual material. At a time in which too many movies try to tame things down in order to score a commercially viable “PG-13,” this is an unabashedly adult film in which virtually the entire cast, save for Freeman and Alexander, wind up dropping their drawers for their love scenes. The important thing is that while the nudity will no doubt please many viewers for reasons that have nothing to do with artistry, it actually adds a certain weight and depth to the material that has nothing to do with simply giving audiences an eyeful. In other words, while Mr. Skin will definitely get a kick out of this film, there is a pretty good chance that the rest of you will as well.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.