Voiceovers were created so they could be spoken by Morgan Freeman. The Memphis-born actor possesses pipes of such sad-eyed gravity, he can sell the inevitability of Man’s tragic fate in a single line of dialogue. But a Morgan Freeman voiceover has become a cliché in itself, and when his weighty drone inaugurates Robert Benton’s new film, you know you’re in for something that suffocates with import.
This filmed version of Charles Baxter’s 2001 novel covers a lot of emotional ground as it charts the loves and losses of a group of Oregon bed-hoppers struggling to find a home for their hearts. The interconnected storylines are uncluttered and emotionally rich, but they’re also ingratiating, craving our acknowledgment of their depth and purpose. It’s hard to warm up to a film where a character chops his finger off so he can “feel in my body as much pain” as he feels in his heart.
Harry (Freeman) is a college professor on an ever-lengthening sabbatical that allows he and wife Esther (Jane Alexander) to wallow in the sorrow of their son’s tragic death. Dispensing wisdom and advice that sound suspiciously like they came from a novel, Harry does his magical chin-stroking at the local java joint owned by hopeless romantic Bradley (Greg Kinnear). Bradley, whose thirst for emotional connection leads him to make unwise choices, is the very model of modern hapless decency. And in Allison Burnett’s clean, if heavy-handed adaptation, decency is its own punishment.
One night, while Bradley rhapsodizes about how he and wife Kathryn (Selma Blair) have just experienced the perfect day together (although we see nothing they actually did), she pines for her new lesbian girlfriend. Getting dumped for another woman leaves Bradley so emotionally adrift, he breaks into his sister’s house to steal back his dog, a lame stab at humor that also reveals loose threads in the film’s otherwise deft crosshatching.
Later, he falls for Diana (Radha Mitchell), an ice-cold real estate agent having an affair with a married man (Billy Burke). It says something about the movie that the adulterer, who fumes at Diana for carrying on their affair after accepting Bradley’s marriage proposal, is the most morally level-headed character.
If Harry and Bradley are older, more battle-scarred veterans of love’s lonely trenches, Oscar (Toby Hemingway) and Chloe (Alexa Davalos) are fresh recruits. Oscar is an ex-druggie who works in Bradley’s espresso bar. He falls for winsome neo-hippie Chloe (pronounced CLO-ay, larding the point that she’s a counterculture chick), and the two dream of a home with a foyer and making the pornographic films they hope will pay for it.
They’re partial to having sex in empty football stadiums while meteors pass overhead, as if the stars themselves are sprinkling them with the fairy dust of success or failure. She even puts all her faith in a psychic, who senses increasing trouble with every flip of the tarot card. But, as Woody Allen told Time Magazine regarding his relationship with then-girlfriend Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, “The heart wants what it wants.” So Oscar and Chloe succumb to young love’s oblivious frenzy, unaware that the orgasmic highs will soon give way to crushing lows.
Feast of Love is bathed in the dark wood and lengthening shadows of a serious movie, but it ultimately can’t reconcile its humanism with its fatalism. Instead of the arch, sociological taint that made Todd Field’s moderately similar Little Children so darkly humorous, we’re asked to derive deep meaning from proclamations like “God is either dead or he despises us” and consider that cosmic forces determine our happiness. (If any of that is true, why even try?) The movie fancies itself as having a lot to give, but even with the able cast and sincere, if lumbering, quest for universality, its oversized heart doesn’t beat strongly enough to leave an impression.
In his 1979 Oscar winner Kramer vs. Kramer, Benton left the consequences of love to the attorneys. Twenty-eight years later, Feast of Love tells us we’re the architects of our own unhappiness, paying the price for desires that often overtake our common sense. Sometimes, attorneys cost less. —
Cast: Morgan Freeman, Greg Kinnear, Radha Mitchell, Billy Burke, Selma Blair, Alexa Davlos, Toby Hemingway and Jane Alexander
Director: Robert Benton
Screenwriter: Allison Burnett
Producers: Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi and Richard S. Wright
Rating: R for strong sexual content, nudity and language
Running time: 102 min.
Release date: September 28, 2007