The Love Letter
Screenplay : Maria Maggenti (based on the novel by Cathleen Schine)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Kate Capshaw (Helen MacFarquahar), Blythe Danner (Lillian), Ellen DeGeneres (Janet), Geraldine McEwan (Miss Scattergoods), Julianne Nicholson (Jennifer), Tom Everett Scott (Johnny), Tom Selleck (George), Gloria Stuart (Eleanor)
"The Love Letter" starts out as a light, romantic farce, and ends up a dissatisfying exploration of the emptiness and lost opportunities suffered by all the major characters. The movie doesn't work precisely because it doesn't know what it wants to be. Part of the time, it's a sexy-silly game of romantic mix-up, with various characters incorrectly assuming that the titular letter is intended for them; then, the movie switches gears and has dark scenes of revealed secrets and defeated ambition. "The Love Letter" isn't so much romantic as it is morose.
Kate Capshaw stars as Helen MacFarquahar, an attractive, fortyish divorcee who owns a book shop in the charmingly unrealistic Massachusetts town of Loblolly-by-the-Sea. Her life is mostly dull, completely lacking in any kind of romantic adventurousness, a point constantly made by her co-worker, Janet (Ellen DeGeneres), who appears to have a more active dating life although she is no happier than Helen.
However, when Helen finds an anonymous, typed love letter in the cushions of the sofa at the book shop, her previously repressed ardor is aroused, and she begins an affair with 20-year-old Johnny (Tom Everett Scott), a college student home for the summer who she thinks is the author. Johnny, on the other hand, thinks Helen is the author, and he finds himself falling deeply in love with the older woman (an interesting switch on the usual Hollywood ploy of teaming older men with much younger women).
The plot also involves George (Tom Selleck), a friend of Helen's from high school who has secretly pined for her over the past twenty years. There is also a side plot about Helen's mother (Blythe Danner), who has recently returned to town after a year's abscence in Europe and has an enormous secret to reveal, and Miss Scattergoods (Geraldine McEwan), a somewhat mysterious old woman in town who confides to Johnny that she is also in love with someone she cannot have.
If there is a cohesive theme in "The Love Letter," it is not that love makes fools of us all--a Shakespearean point the movie tries to make but misses completely--but rather that love is a pointless charade that can only lead to heartbreak. I don't feel I'm giving away too much to say that almost no one in the this movie winds up happy or contented, except for two unlikely women who had to suffer unhappy lives for more than forty years before they found peace. With its failed attempt to appropriate European sensibilities in New England, "The Love Letter" feels forced in all the wrong places.
What's unfortunate about "The Love Letter" is that it sets up numerous situations that could have been lively, sexy, and funny, and does nothing with any of them. One could make the assumption that Helen's secretive affair with a man half her age might put some spring in her step, but it does nothing of the sort. She seems more interested in her morning jogs than on the supposedly steamy affair in which she is involved. Whether this is more the fault of Maria Maggenti's ("The Incredible True Adventure of Two Girls in Love") plodding screenplay or the novel by Cathleen Schine upon which it is based, I cannot tell. Either way, with the exception of a few bright moments (most of which involve DeGeneres delivering her patented well-timed, sardonic one-liners), the film sags.
Hong Kong-born director Peter Ho-Sun Chan ("Comrades: Almost a Love Story") tries to infuse the material with some life, but he has little to go on. Luis Bacalov's overworked music, which owes a debt to romantic ballads of the '30s and '40s, keeps trying to tell us, "This is spunky. This is spontaneous. This is lively!" But the images on the screen tell another story. The music gives the movie a "Sleepless in Seattle" sound without the accompanying humor or romance, and lacking those two things, this "Love Letter" belongs in the dead letter office.
©1999 James Kendrick