A Lovable Feast: An Old Friend Offers Cure for the War Weary

FEAST OF LOVE RUNNING TIME 102 minutes DIRECTED BY Robert Benton STARRING Morgan Freeman, Greg Kinnear, Selma Blair, Radha Mitchell

RUNNING TIME 102 minutes
DIRECTED BY Robert Benton
STARRING Morgan Freeman, Greg Kinnear, Selma Blair, Radha Mitchell

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Robert Benton’s Feast of Love, from a screenplay by Allison Burnett and based on the novel by Charles Baxter, serves admirably as a playful respite from the Iraq-war-driven flood of media violence that threatens to engulf us with a perpetual hangover of hopeless paranoia (and to which I am already beginning to succumb). This is not to say that Mr. Benton, Ms. Burnett and Mr. Baxter have collaborated on a concoction of frothy escapism. Quite the contrary. With the help of an exemplary cast, they have fashioned an exquisite tapestry of interlocking love stories, some of which end happily, some sadly, some farcically and one quite tragically. Throughout all the shifting moods, no single narrative disrupts the smoothly well-paced flow of the film as a coherent whole.

Ms. Burnett’s astute screenplay has some major structural differences from Mr. Baxter’s well-reviewed novel. For some probably financial reason, the action has been transferred from the environs of Ann Arbor, Michigan, to a comparable college campus neighborhood in Oregon. The biggest change, however, is the inspired casting of the book’s central character, Charlie Baxter, the author’s alter ego; here he’s played by Morgan Freeman, as retiring philosophy professor Harry Stevenson, thereby becoming the only African-American character in the film’s narrative. (There is one minor African-American in the novel. But he is changed to an immigrant Hungarian-American in the film, which suggests that race is no big issue for this story in either medium.) As a happy consequence of this switch, the Oscar-winning Mr. Freeman anchors the film with his charismatic authority as a raisonneur and as a witness to the separate strands of the story, which in the book are narrated by a half-dozen or so participants in the multiple love feasts. These distractingly shifting viewpoints have been scrapped on the screen for a more neutral vantage point from which each relationship can unfold with relative objectivity.

The story begins on one of Harry’s long sleepless nights, during which he walks the deserted streets and spaces adjoining his off-campus home, which he shares with his now soundly sleeping wife (Jane Alexander). On his restless nocturnal strolls, Harry frequently encounters his next-door neighbor, and friendly fellow insomniac, Bradley Thomas (Greg Kinnear), the maritally jinxed proprietor of the campus coffee shop, and the source of much of the film’s humor in the kind of pompously clueless role he played so effectively in last year’s hilarious Little Miss Sunshine.

One late afternoon after Bradley and Harry have returned to the coffee shop following a game in the girl’s softball league, in which Bradley’s wife, Kathryn (Selma Blair), plays, Harry and Bradley share a table with Kathryn and a personable girl on the opposing team named Janey (Shannon Lucio). As it turns out, Bradley is too engrossed in his conversation with the always-more-observant Harry to notice that Kathryn has fallen in love with the slyly seductive Janey, who has subtly locked her eyes with Kathryn’s. Harry later relates this incredible happening to his wife, who is not surprised by Bradley’s misfortune, citing an old curse she believes had been placed on Bradley’s house after a long-ago murder there. It is not the last time that superstition plays a part in determining the destinies of the various characters.

Meanwhile, both Bradley and Harry encourage the budding romance between Bradley’s easygoing employee, Oscar (Toby Hemingway), a former pot addict just beginning to pull himself together, and Chloe (Alexa Davalos), the coffee shop’s newly hired waitress. Soon after, the ever-hapless Bradley talks himself into a second doomed marriage, with Radha Mitchell’s Diana, the sensually scintillating (and hottest) number in the tangled proceedings. At the time of her marriage to Bradley, Diana is still enmeshed in a passionate affair with a married man, David (Billy Burke), for whom she inevitable abandons her husband. Bradley winds up in a hospital emergency room to reattach a severed finger after his pathetic attempt at self-mutilation in grief over Diana’s desertion. Ironically, it is in this same emergency room that Bradley emerges third-time-lucky with a true and lasting love. Harry and his wife are greatly relieved to learn of Bradley’s turn of good fortune, but we have long since been made aware of their own tragic back story, in the recent death of their estranged son from a drug overdose, certainly a contributing factor in Harry’s insomnia.

I must confess at this point, if only for the sake of the ever captious and suspicious, that I have been a close friend of Mr. Benton ever since he and the late David Newman (also a close personal friend) collaborated on the screenplay of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). In the ensuing 40-year-period, I have often disclosed my critical conflict of interest in print, but Mr. Benton’s films were too important a part of the movie scene for me to refrain from reviewing them entirely. Hence, I happily joined the chorus of approval when he scored a critical and commercial bull’s-eye with such palpable hits as The Late Show (1977), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Places in the Heart (1984), and Nobody’s Fool (1994), while limiting myself to “constructive criticism” of such near and far misses as Bad Company (1972), Still of the Night (1982), Nadine (1987), Billy Bathgate (1991), Twilight (1998) and The Human Stain (2003). Very often, the sheer unpredictability from the result of casting choices plays a crucial role in the outcome of cinematic ventures in both the critical arena and the commercial marketplace.

I do not know yet if Feast of Love will be a palpable hit or a near miss with the critics and the public. Certainly, the apparent aptness of its casting, particularly with the selection of Mr. Freeman, Mr. Kinnear, Ms. Mitchell and Ms. Alexander, should keep it away from the abyss of opening-week blues. But what do I know? After all, I was just about the only New York reviewer who failed to be bedazzled by either Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) or George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977). My excuse for underestimating Jaws has been that I don’t swim, and therefore couldn’t see how a shark could even get at me unless I fell off a ship or a plane, in which case I’d drown long before a shark could get a crack at my flesh. I have no such easy excuse for my resistance to Star Wars, except for my increasing aversion to juvenile science fiction, particularly as I have gotten older.

By the same token, time has only increased my addiction to love and lust in the movies, which makes my enthusiastic endorsement of Feast of Love doubly suspect. Still, I urge my readers to see the film with no pangs of guilt on my part whatsoever.

A Lovable Feast: An Old Friend Offers Cure for the War Weary