Friday, November 16, 2007

"Love in the Time of Cholera" -- * 1/2

A bad choice right from the outset for the notoriously impersonal/cold filmmaking style of Mike Newell, "Love in the Time of Cholera" is a rather dull, schizophrenic affair that fails to illuminate any of the much-hailed attributes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 1985 romantic classic novel. The potential for greatness is there on paper-- the story, in theory, is a powerful one-- and it's easy to see the intent, but no one's heart is in it, and the disparate tone throughout is all wrong. What should have been romantic or moving, instead just plods on and on, going on far too many digressions and bringing to mind an ill-conceived soap opera (albeit a very pretty one).

Beginning in 1893 with an old man (Benjamin Bratt in old-age makeup) being bitten by a parrot and falling to his death, "Cholera" is a romantic fantasy/drama about a love that spans 53 years in Colombia. To put it simply, it's a life-spanning love between Florentino (played by Javier Bardem for the most part, and by Unax Ugalde in a younger form) and Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), but nothing in the film is as simple as that. Despite the two falling in love at first sight as young'ns, Fermina's father (John Leguizamo) disapproves of Florentino and takes Fermina with him to the country, intending to find her someone better. He does, in the form of successful doctor Juvenal (Bratt, bland). Though Florentino fucks hundreds of women throughout his life, his heart remains set on Fermina. Promising to wait for her until Juvenal dies (and as we know by the opening scene, he eventually does), Florentino carries a torch for his entire life. You can see where the resonance would/should be in this story, yes?

Squandering the potential to take advantage of the novel's magical realism (despite a re-creation of the book's original title presentation, surrounded by animated flowers), "Cholera" is instead tonally all over the place. We alternate, at any given moment, between broad and cartoonish, melodramatic, dull and inert, and wildly sentimental (the one attribute I can forgive-- this story should be sentimental). In the expansive and tangential storyline, it's ultimately the wildly jarring and "off" moments that stick out upon reflection; A misguided attempt at slapstick involving a cat's interference in a sexual encounter draws particular attention to itself. The only thing that seems more tonally off is the soundtrack, frequently punctuated by Shakira songs. Yes, Shakira and Gabriel Garcia Marquez: a match made in heaven.

Bardem is interesting to watch in anything, but this isn't one of the brilliant actor's better performances. The part is only noteworthy when viewed as a comparison to his bravura turn in the simultaneously-in-theaters "No Country for Old Men" as a case study of his versatility. You can't help but take note of the contrast in seeing Bardem blowing the brains out of innocents with an air-gun and watching him weep like a schoolgirl into his pillow after being rejected by his love. If only aspects of "No Country's" Chigurh were infused in Florentino, "Cholera" might be something worth watching.

In miniscule roles, Liev Schreiber, Fernanda Montenegro and Catalina Sandida Moreno don't get enough to do to make any sort of impression. On the other hand, Leguizamo's presence lingers throughout despite leaving the film early, even if it is for all the wrong reasons. Believing himself to be starring in a sequel to "Moulin Rouge," Leguizamo leaves no scenery unchewed, manically and viciously acting to a hilarious extent. It's tempting to criticize this performance as awful, but at least he's enjoying himself. We may be watching him with wide-eyed bewilderment, but at least he's not boring like nearly everything else.

So much of what must have resonated on the page comes off as melodramatic and uninspired in the hands of Newell. Dialogue, which may be ripped right from the novel, ranges from the redundant ("I gave her the letter. Now I must wait for her reply.") to ponderous ("Love is everything we do naked"). But what pushes the film from simply misguided and dull into truly patience-trying and forgettable, is its overstuffed nature paired with its slug's sense of pacing. At well over two hours, we go on a seeming never-ending stream of unimportant tangents and different episodes of varying characters, that I truly think a sizable chunk could've been wantonly excised (a 30-minute section in particular) and the film would suffer no narrative or coherency stumbling as a result.

To be frank with you, I didn't fall asleep during "Love in the Time of Cholera," but I came about a close as possible to doing so. Despite closing on a note of slight resonance and grace (with the pair finally together as senior citizens), it feels unearned, and nothing leading up to it provides anything resembling genuine feeling or engagement. I've heard from many a fan that Marquez's novel is a masterwork, with some even dubbing it their favorite love story of all time. If that's the case, Newell's film may be of even greater offense than from a layman's perspective, such as mine. To me, it's just a lousy movie. To fans of the novel, it's probably much, much less.


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