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In this episode: The Love Letter

How cute this movie almost was! How romantic it nearly became! Despite nice acting and a fun story, The Love Letter didn't really work for me. Nah. I laughed and smiled and chuckled, but I didn't come away satisfied.

I have to admit I was distracted. First, the movie was just slightly out of focus—enough out of focus to drive my brain mad trying to get the picture just that much sharper, but enough in focus that the manager obviously decided I was just another raving lunatic complaining about nothing. I may as well have been complaining to Nelson Mandela that small invisible noodles shaped like Venus fly traps were clogging my wheatgrass juicer. The second distraction was some dummy next to me going forward with a consistent program of physical contact. Unacceptable, even in these liberal times.

However, once my brain took to pretending the whole movie was actually shot out of focus, and once I realized that physical contact ain't so bad, I really paid attention to the movie. It was not what I expected.

The trailer for this movie blatantly implied that a love letter is mailed to all the people in some small town and they all suspect each other of sending it. But that's not what this movie is. I'm gonna talk about the story here, so skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to know. The movie instead is about a lonely, older woman (old enough to be as old as her mother, it appears!) named Helen (Kate Capshaw) who finds a love letter wedged between the cushions of one of the couches in her extremely quaint book store. She reads the letter, which is very quaint (and rather touching, actually) and, through some quaint delusion, imagines it was written for her. Thus begins more hallucinations, where Helen hears the letter being read by all kinds of people in the town: her longtime friend George (Tom Selleck); her book store manager, Janet (Ellen DeGeneres); a nerdy customer; a squatting of old ladies; and a garbage truck-full of young, handsome sanitation workers. Eventually, she decides the hallucination that the letter was in fact written by 20-year-old Johnny (Tom Everett Scott), who's staying in the quaint seaside village for the summer to house-sit for his parents, is the more correct one. Quirky wackiness happens, and Johnny sees the letter, thinking it was written for him by Helen. A quaint relationship develops, but then Janet finds the letter and thinks George wrote it for her. However, Helen immediately crushes Janet's enthusiasm by telling her it's her letter and Janet just found it by mistake.

And that's it. The letter is passed around no more. Oh, except for two quaint side-plots, one involving the town sheriff (or is he just a police officer?), and one involving Helen's mother. This limited passing of the letter does not create the kind of frenzied humor I was expecting from the movie. Which of course means I now have to judge the movie for what it actually was.

What it was was okay. As I said, the acting was nice. Kate was good. The last time I really saw her in anything was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In that film, Kate was the Jar Jar of her day, adding nothing to the movie but inconvenience, nuisance, and lots of screaming. I liked her performance in The Love Letter. Kate really can act, by golly! Helen as a character, though, is rather dour and dull, lifeless and colorless. That's what she's supposed to be, I know, but even when she breaks out of her shell she's no more interesting. She turns from a sepia caterpillar to a sepia butterfly. With small wings. That sounds like a harsh criticism, so let me temper it by saying her character is also sprinkled with an effective dappling of pathos. Her dourness and lifelessness are not pointless, of course. And her character does try to be interesting (she goes jogging in a funny hat), but this is a closed, sad woman. We want her to end up happy. [Spoiler ahead.] Ah, but she doesn't. Not really. Which is why she remains dull, why her wings are small.

The other characters drift about in this quaint little world created by director Peter Chan (which is how he's listed on the IMDb, but I think his credit in the film was Ho-sun Chan, his Jedi name). They float around. They bob. They waft. Which of course everyone in a small seaside town does. I could describe the benefits each actor brings to his or her character, but to keep the review from being even longer, I'll just repeat: they all did a very good job.

The movie definitely works that small town atmos for all it's got, and it's successful as far as tone and feeling go. I think my heart, breathing, and metabolism slowed while watching. I appreciated the lazy dog in the driveway—a cliché idea, but the dog was a cute one, so I give it a thumbs up. What didn't work so well was the integration of the characters and this town. A Simple Plan and Nobody's Fool are two examples of movies where you believe the characters actually live in their small burgs. The Love Letter is missing that. I really didn't know why some of these people were still living there, or I couldn't figure out why some had come back after being away. Sure, it's all explained in the story, but exposition does not always make something believable. Ask Clinton. I'm thinking this disconnection had something to do with the costuming. Even when looking dowdy or unhip, everyone was stylish anyway. Billy Bob Thornton's Jacob in A Simple Plan? No one that authentic here. It's like the little town is filled with corporate executives who have arrived for a team-building retreat and they're all wearing what they think people in small towns should wear.

[SPOILER. Skip ahead.] You can probably argue that a romantic movie that ends up without the main characters being together is no kind of romantic movie at all. But this fits nicely with what I said about Notting Hill. There, I was kinda hoping Hugh and Julia would not end up together. Well, here, Kate and Tom (the Selleck one) do just that. You see, Helen ends up realizing that George loves her, and by the time she realizes she might love him, too, it's too late. It is implied that they may end up together down the road, but they part ways at the end of the movie, Kate looking sad as ever, Tom looking like he's got to leave the team-building retreat early to go close a deal at his New York office. This separation of the two "lovers" lacks dramatic punch, thanks to those quotation marks; they are never lovers, just friends who've realized they missed their chance years ago. The separation of Hugh and Julia in Notting would have been more tragic because they had actually gotten off their duffs and acted on their feelings. Kate and Tom never did. Yawn.

The humor factor in the movie is medium, I'd say. The laughs are gentle, rolling things. Ellen is funny, especially when she's allowed to go off script. And the situations are sometimes humorous as well. There are some good chuckles to be had here.

I would say you should rent this some night if you're looking for romantic fluff made not with processed sugar but Sugar in the Raw. Don't expect to have your heart swept away by a moving story of love and loss. BZZZZZT! Not here. Try the series closer of Mad About You. That moved me more.




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©1999 Steven Lekowicz