Jan 11, 2006 at 12:00 am

Here’s one you haven’t heard before: A guy falls in love with the one woman he can’t have because she hates everything he stands for. So, he pretends to reform his ways in order to win her affection. But get this: He accidentally ends up reformed! Didn’t see that one coming, did ya?

Sluggishly directed by Lasse Hallström, Casanova desperately attempts to reinvent the legendary lover’s exploits as a broad farce but ends up like Merchant-Ivory meets Three’s Company. Set in 18th century Venice, the film finds our unrepentant libertine discovering he’s worn out his welcome with the authorities after breaking into a convent and seducing a nubile young nun. To make amends and improve his reputation, Casanova (Heath Ledger) opts to settle down and marry Victoria (Natalie Dormer), the virginal daughter of a nobleman. Unfortunately, he becomes unexpectedly smitten with Francesca (Sienna Miller), a liberated woman who writes feminist tracts under a male pseudonym. He must concoct a plan to escape his voracious bride-to-be, derail the impending nuptials of Francesca and escape the wrath of the Vatican’s inquisitor. If it sounds like a delirious hoot — it’s not.

With little plot, character or imagination, Casanova relies on an endless succession of false or mistaken identities and convenient coincidences to keep things going. Any moments of sentimentality are unearned and the action sequences are dull. It’s the kind of film that requires that everyone but the romantic leads is a complete idiot. Furthermore, for a film about sex, Casanova is remarkably asexual; the attempts at lewdness barely rise above the antics of Benny Hill. And there’s no nudity. The movie is so discreet it’s practically impotent, and certainly undeserving of an R rating.

Thank God for Oliver Platt. Without his reliable scene-stealing, this gussied-up sex comedy might have been truly insufferable. As Francesca’s husband-to-be, he turns the “King of Pork Lard” — the butt of every cruel and obvious fat joke you can think of — into an appealing and strangely charming character. Someone needs to write a movie truly worthy of this actor’s comedic talents.

As a matter of fact, most of the cast of Casanova is so good you find yourself wishing they could all be transported to a better film. Ledger, with his grumbling baritone asides, is a charming rake, delivering just the right mix of lasciviousness and boredom. Miller is convincingly fiery, a feisty foil to Ledger’s cad. But it’s the supporting players that dominate. Lena Olin shows a surprising flair for comedy as Francesca’s chubby-chasing mother; Jeremy Irons, fully aware he’s slumming, tears into his role as the papal inquisitor with aplomb.

Hallström, on the other hand, is unable to deliver a farce that’s even remotely funny. The best he can muster is an occasional amusing moment. With a reputation that exceeds the quality of his work (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules), the director once again produces a picture that is unwavering in its conventionality. Teaming with cinematographer Oliver Stapleton, he demonstrates a gift for beautiful images but grinds any nuance into dust with his reliance on melodramatic, heavy-handed sentimentality.

As a final pet peeve: Why are English accents — worse still, bad English accents — used in a film filled with Italians? Hollywood seems convinced that the only European accent Americans will accept is the British. As a result, Nazi generals, Spanish priests, French revolutionaries and Italian playboys all sound like they grew up outside Manchester. Now, there’s your farce.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].