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Wednesday, May 26, 1999

The Love Letter

Posted By on Wed, May 26, 1999 at 12:00 AM

Even when they can’t make a movie that’s good, at least the major Hollywood studios provide a certain level of technical competence. So while it’s not a surprise that The Love Letter fails to achieve the romantic whimsy it aims for, what’s stunning is how poorly constructed it is on the most basic narrative level.

This probably isn’t the case, but The Love Letter feels like it was once a longer, leisurely paced movie that was then chopped down to a brisk 88 minutes. The film’s jumpy quality is compounded by characters who reside in a sleepy Massachusetts coastal town – quaintly named Loblolly by the Sea – but act, react and overact to stimuli with an irrational speed that would put harried New Yorkers to shame.

Cathleen Schine’s novel contains a promising premise: An anonymous love letter reawakens the dormant passions of those who read it. Director Peter Ho-sun Chan gets some emotional sparks and screenwriter Maria Maggenti (The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love) provides a few charming moments, but all good intentions are lost in the film’s fractured pacing and frenetic tone.

That schizophrenia starts with the central character, Helen MacFarquhar (Kate Capshaw, also one of the producers), a fortysomething single mother who has moved back to her hometown to open a funky, deliriously eclectic bookstore that apparently survives without relying on pesky things like customers.

The town’s ultracool ice queen, Helen spends her free time jogging like a pack of rabid dogs were in hot pursuit. She fails to see the torch firefighter George (Tom Selleck) has carried for her since high school. Instead, Helen’s thoughts turn elsewhere when she first discovers the letter and assumes it’s for her.

Theirs is an odyssey of mistiming, and this steamy summer is a continuation. George is in the midst of an acrimonious divorce, while Helen has begun a dalliance with her dewy-eyed, college student employee, Johnny (Tom Everett Scott). In the film’s matriarchy, Johnny functions as the classic ingenue.

It’s Helen’s female employees, the wisecracking, ultraefficient manager Janet (Ellen DeGeneres) and Jennifer (Julianne Nicholson), a budding feminist guerilla who admires her boss’ basic bitchiness, who have the primary roles at first. But when they display interest in George and Johnny respectively, they are relegated to the sidelines.

Then, Helen’s mother Lillian (Blythe Danner) and grandmother Eleanor (Gloria Stuart) appear, the true nature of the letter comes to light, and women’s relationships come back to the forefront. Or do they? The Love Letter ultimately focuses on Helen’s choice of male companionship.

Instead of encouraging epistolary relationships, a film this confused and confusing shows how often desire-filled missives end up in the dead letter office.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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