"Feast of Love" is a frothy, whimsical titletoo frothy and too whimsical for a film that might have been more accurately named "Woe Is Love." Based on the novel by Charles Baxter and directed for the screen by Robert Benton (2003's "The Human Stain
"), the picture holds a lot of truths about relationships and the way they are affected by the natural processes of life and death. It is also startlingly bleak, foreshadowing tragedy with such a weighty pall that it is difficult for the viewer to find any joy in the lighter moments. Within the emotionally astute performances and delicately layered characters, then, is a welcome refuge.
Very much an ensemble drama, screenwriter Allison Burnett (2000's "Autumn in New York
") interconnects roughly a half-dozen romances, some ill-fated and others strong enough to withstand the ages, in the scenic Pacific Northwest city of Portland, Oregon. Coffee shop owner Bradley Thomas (Greg Kinnear) believes he has the perfect marriage with the unfulfilled Kathryn (Selma Blair), but he's fooling himself. Soon she has walked out on him to be with Jenny (Stana Katic), and he is left alone to acknowledge his failure in seeing what was going on under his nose. Shortly after, Bradley threatens to make the same mistake with real estate agent Diana (Radha Mitchell), who starts going out with him even though her heart truly lies with the already-married David (Billy Burke). Meanwhile, Bradley's young employees Oscar (Toby Hemingway) and Chloe (Alexa Davalos) embark on a rapturous love affair and are soon planning the rest of their lives together. After visiting a psychic (Margo Martindale) and receiving some grim news, Chloe is left unsure of how long that will be. All of these characters interact with and are observed by elder narrator Harry Stevenson (Morgan Freeman), who seemingly has the answers to everything, yet is unable to come to terms with the grief in his own life.
"Feast of Love" does not always overcome the feeling that it would be just as well-suited for a cable network as it is the big screen, and there are other problems too. The genesis of each relationship is too conveniently set up, making it look as if anyone can find love (permanent or cursory) just by walking up to a stranger and asking him or her if they want to go out. The dark underbelly that befalls the majority of these love stories is either predictably telegraphed in advance, too obvious in their treatment, or both. A key third-act sequence, for example, is off-puttingly unsubtle in its forbearance of tragedy, and, while serving an ultimate purpose, the film would have been better off without it. It is also disappointing and perhaps slightly prejudicial that out of all the different threads, it is the same-sex romance between Kathryn and Jenny that is the only one abruptly lobbed off before the halfway point, with neither of these intriguing characters seen again. Selma Blair (2005's "The Fog
") is underused as Kathryn, but gives her enough shading that she sticks in the viewer's memory even after she has exited the story.
Where "Feast of Love" gets its power is in director Robert Benton's view of the various loves that make up a fleeting life. Now in his mid-seventies, veteran filmmaker Benton is no longer a spring chicken as the saying goes, and so his interest in dealing with subject matter involving one's mortality is not only understandable, but necessary. For all of its cutesy elements and conventions, the film positively cuts to the bone in its candidness of this topic. This is no more true than in a heartbreaking, unsentimental scene in which Harry and beloved wife Esther (Jane Alexander) confront the tough fact that they are getting older and one of them will not always be around for the other. The ultimate messageone running through most of the movieis simple but valuable: love as hard as you can with the time you are given, and cherish each moment with those you care about as if it was the last.
Acting is top-notch, on equal footing with the care brought to the characters. Whether virtuous or not, no one is narrowly written as the bad guy, and each one is multifaceted with the depth to understand their actions. Greg Kinnear (2006's "Little Miss Sunshine
"), a performer who often is bland in his presence, coincidentally is terrific here at playing a bland character. His Bradley is aching to love and be loved, but falls time and again for women who, if only he would open his eyes, he should realize are trouble. Morgan Freeman (2007's "Evan Almighty
") is exceptional as Harry, the wise but also troubled fatherly figure who has not been able to let go of the guilt involved in his son's death. Freeman and Jane Alexander (2002's "The Ring
") bring such a devastating gravity and frankness to their unfaltering relationship that no two other actors would have quite been able to duplicate it.
As young lovebirds Oscar and Chloe, Toby Hemingway (2006's "The Covenant
") and Alexa Davalos (2004's "The Chronicles of Riddick
") are attractive and charismatic, though their subplot is the most idealized and, therefore, superficial of the bunch. And as the torn Diana, unable to make up her mind between a man who is right for her in essence and a man whom she truly loves but cannot be with, Radha Mitchell (2006's "Silent Hill
") softens her character enough to not make her hateful, but refuses to compromise the actions of a woman who is nonetheless adulterous and deceiving.
Elegantly photographed by Kramer Morgenthau (2007's "Fracture
"), "Feast of Love" is an undeniably touching drama with a script that is a little too on-the-nose. Its emotional pull is superior to the scene-to-scene specifics of the narrativein this way, it is reminiscent of 2007's "Evening
"but it does pack a punch without sulking too heavily in schmaltzy melodrama or strained action. By taking his time and letting his characters' lives unfold, director Robert Benton has crafted a film that resonates in spite of its shortcomings.