November 22, 2007

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Love in the Time of Cholera (R)
Questionable accents, unfortunate makeup and uninteresting romance kill the mood in Love in the Time of Cholera, a movie that pretty much convinced me that I don’t need to read the book.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a literary giant whose book is much better than this movie. Let’s say I decide to believe the people who argue that. Even if the book is 100 times better than the movie, it’s probably still enough like the movie that it won’t be on the top of my Amazon wish list. Sorry, book.

Florentino Ariza (Unax Ugalde) is a romantic, poetry-writing young man who falls instantly and deeply in love with Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). But Florentino is just a fatherless telegraph delivery man and Fermina is the daughter of Lorenzo Daza (John Leguizamo), who isn’t exactly the prince of Columbia (where this story takes place) but has a bunch of mules and is determined to make his daughter a “great lady.” Fermina wants … well, we have no idea. She’s kind of a spineless drip of a girl, which is maybe why she eventually goes along with Florentino’s wooing of her and participates in an Affair in the Time before MySpace by writing him letters, even while she’s in school being hectored by nuns. One of those nuns finds out about her illicit writings and Fermina’s aunt/chaperone is sent away and Fermina is packed off to the country’s mountain hinterlands. But before Fermina and Florentino’s correspondence was discovered, Florentino paid a visit to Fermina’s house and, shout-whispering up to her window from the courtyard, he asks her to marry him and she accepts.

Once in the country, Fermina tells her cousin Hildebranda (Catalina Sandino Moreno) about her plans to marry Florentino just as soon as she gets back. The far more interesting Hildebranda shares her own secret flirtation but then decrees that love for both girls is impossible. Or, as Fermina’s father has said, an illusion.

Back in town, Florentino (who grows up into Javier Bardem) is still writing letters and poems for his Fermina and counting the days until her return. When she does return, her father tells her she’s in charge of her own life, but when she first sees Florentino again, she tells him that their relationship is over, that it was only an illusion.

I’m not sure if this is completely the fault of Ms. Mezzogiorno, but this scene is one of the movie’s first big storytelling flaws (there are a jillion little and medium-sized ones before this but this is the first “what what?” of the film). We can’t tell if she’s saying this to Florentino because she’s come to believe it or because her father still holds sway over her actions. Shortly after turning Florentino away, she meets Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt) and doesn’t seem to like him much either. But, with the help of Fermina’s father, Urbino eventually gets Fermina to agree to marry him. Florentino, naturally, is devastated further and decides to leave town, traveling on a river boat to a promised job far away. On this trip, however, he discovers sex and finds that lots of sex with a variety of women can help to dull the pain of lost love.

No, really?

Florentino continues to carry the torch for Fermina, Fermina continues to live an extremely boring life with Ubrino, Fermina’s father Lorenzo completely disappears from the movie, and, as the hours wear on, the actors age in extremely unconvincing stage-makeup ways. Love in the Time of Cholera is billed as a big, three-hanky romance, but it just feels like more than two hours of soggy storytelling. And the blame for this can be spread all around. The story, at least as it’s adapted here, stretches over decades but is very thin. A man’s tomcatting, a woman’s low-level misery and their shared might-have-been just don’t provide enough substance to construct an epic. Dreamy shots of the landscape and countless scenes of river travel set to not-quite-appealing-enough Spanish love songs don’t feel like artistic fancy as much as they feel like filler.

Though the scenery is pretty (if overused), it doesn’t make up for the strange makeup on the actors, who age no better than kids in a high school play who duck behind the curtains to apply a little powder to their hair to make it gray. The unsuccessfulness of the “aging” jars you out of the story every time you see Fermina, Florentino or Urbino put on another decade. So do the accents. I realize that most people don’t like to read their movie, but I would have preferred Spanish with subtitles to the strange collection of Spanish accents heard here (including some doozies from Leguizamo and Liev Schreiber).

As uneven as the accents are, the acting is worse. Bardem is the most comfortable with this material, even if his deep longing sometimes makes his character seem like a simpleton. But he has no partner in Mezzogiorno. She is limp throughout the movie. We never know what her character really wants or thinks and so we have no reason to feel sorrow (or joy or anything really) about the way her life turns out.

Love in the Time of Cholera does not cause massive dehydration and eventual death, like the disease of its title, but it does leave you feeling tired, bored and a little queasy. D

Rated R for sex content/nudity and brief language. Directed by Mike Newell and written by Ronald Harwood (from the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez), Love in the Time of Cholera is two hours and 18 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by New Line Cinema.