Friday, September 28, 2007

"Feast of Love" -- * *

Robert Benton's mismarketed drama "Feast of Love" has a few good performances and a fuck of a lot of nudity, but besides that, it's really not worth your time. Given that the movie's sickly sweet/cute trailer (and title for that matter) gave me sugar rush, it didn't particularly bother me that the actual movie is considerably more serious and tonally downbeat than advertised, but audiences expecting the cute, fluffy romantic comedy they've been promised are in for a rude awakening by the finished product, which is more akin to a weak combination of "Love Actually" and "House of Sand and Fog."

Rather than "Actually's" daunting eight intertwining stories, here there's only three to follow, following 18 months in the lives of a handful of Portland, Oregon residents. Though it was likely impossible due to the film's already short running time (about an hour and 40 minutes), "Feast" really should've been cut down to just two storylines, since the third one nearly sinks the whole movie.

Everyone's somehow connected and/or friends in this movie, and the proceedings are all watched over by happily married college professor Harry (Morgan Freeman, who *gasp* also narrates). Harry omnisciently dispense advice to everyone around him, while still, along with his wife Esther (Jane Alexander), mourning the recent death of his son, which he blames himself for. He regularly attends the coffee shop Jitters, owned by Bradley (Greg Kinnear) and worked at by Oscar (the disturbingly pretty Toby Hemingway).

After being left by his wife of six years (Selma Blair) for another woman (Stana Katic), Bradley ventures again into the dating world with Diana (Radha Mitchell). Bradley is smitten with ice queen Diana, utterly clueless that she's continuing to have an affair with a married man, David (Billy Burke). Meanwhile, recovering drug addict Oscar has been enjoying a fruitful relationship with new Jitters employee Chloe (Alexa Davalos). Chloe is hopelessly in love with Oscar as well, but a fortune teller has told her Oscar's death is imminent, and Oscar's unbalanced father (Fred Ward) keeps showing up to her house and threatening her with a large knife-- not a good combination.

Minimally developed as they might be, Freeman/Alexander's material is nonetheless affecting, and Kinner's surprisingly dark lovable loser storyline is throughly involving, in no small part to the actors involved. Kinnear proves again here why he's one of the most reliable, underrated actors working today, and Freeman really shines with Harry's emotional scenes, or the ones where he's not once again relegated to advice-giving negro. His chemistry with the rare-seen-on-screen-anymore Alexander is superb, and their scenes together are easily the most moving sequences in the film. Mitchell gives a performance of greater weight than her character really requires, but the effort is appreciated.

Burke doesn't have a terrible amount to do, but his argument scene with Mitchell is probably the best one in the movie. Despite him cheating on his wife, he explains he tried for 11 years to make the marriage work before he cheated; she's already fucking someone else right from the get go (in the film's best line, he exclaims after slapping her, "You're gonna marry a guy you're not even sure you're in love with? You deserve to be slapped, you're a cunt!"). And saddled with by far the worst storyline, Davalos is lovely and affecting here, making herself the one standout in her material.

It's the Oscar/Chloe stuff that suffers the most from underwritten characters, mediocre-at-best acting (Hemingway is beautiful, but isn't much of an actor) and increasingly manipulative melodramatics. Whenever the two of them are on screen, you can bet your bottom dollar something eye-rolling, "awww"-worthy, or tearjerking is about to happen. Also, I haven't read the book "Feast of Love" is based on, but it seems a lot of their material gets wedged in haphazardly and is given the short shrift (like an unnecessary bit about them filming a sex tape to make some quick cash).

But the overwhelming feeling throughout "Feast of Love" is one of blandness, which leaves the sheer volume of nudity as the most interesting thing about it. I'm all for more nudity in film, and it's a fair defense to say that people in sex scenes in film should be nude for realism, but audience members could be forgiven for finding it a bit excessive. While Hemingway, Burke and Kinnear's derrieres are briefly glimpsed, Blair and Katic go topless, and both Mitchell and Davalos are given key sequences where they're asked to go full-frontal. I'm sure the man's a stone cold professional (despite his tendency to having a lot of female flesh in all his movies), but my mind couldn't help wondering the motivations behind the 75-year-old's Benton demanding so many of his young actresses disrobe.

While I was mezzo-mezzo on most of "Feast of Love," about a third of it made me cringe, most notably a moment about halfway through the film. Benton mooches off the goodwill toward's this summer's indie golden child "Once" while taking advantage of the fact that most of America hasn't seen it. He does so by integrating that film's lovely centerpiece song "Falling Slowly," a song I can't listen to on my iPod without getting choked up. How is it utilized? It's played over a "Good Luck Chuck"-esque montage of the varying couples in the movie fucking in a multitude of positions. I shit you not, I almost walked out of the theater.

"Feast of Love" is tolerable for the most part, and it's worth checking out at a matinee price (or on DVD) for Kinnear and Freeman's material alone, but one should be warned that nausea is a possible side effect. Characters' actions and dialogue rarely feels honest or recognizable (and flat-out pretentious on more than a few occasions), but the writing is occasionally saved by the actors.

Some people are going to completely love this movie, despite-- or because of-- its melodramatics (an audience member on the way out of my screening remarked it was "the best movie I've seen since 'Crash,'"). I certainly heard sniffles at moments, and I'm convinced Freeman's dolcet tones have a hypnotic power that can make audiences like anything featuring them. Though I've heard it's a step up from the book it's based on, Allison Burnett's relentlessly contrived screenplay is significantly more eye-rolling than it is heartwarming.



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