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Feast of Love

Not Very Appetizing

Over four decades, writer/director Robert Benton ([bThe Human Stain, Places in the Heart, Kramer vs. Kramer) has specialized in "adult" dramas, small-scale, intimate character studies that favor observation and emotional authenticity over the usual melodramatic flourishes we've come to expect from Hollywood-produced dramas. Not surprisingly, Benton’s old school filmmaking style and concerns have left him well out of step with contemporary Hollywood. Benton's latest, effort, Feast of Love, an adaptation of Charles Baxter's National Book Award-nominated novel, isn't going to change that, nor, to be frank, should it.

Superficially at least, Feast of Love resembles the work of an auteur wannabe trying to duplicate one of Robert Altman’s multi-character, multi-storyline, web-of-life films like Shortcuts, Nashville, or M*A*S*H minus, unfortunately, Altman’s insights into the complexities of romantic and non-romantic relationships. For starters, Benton gives his audience an offscreen narrator (Morgan Freeman) who first introduces us to the setting and characters.

The narrator is also one of the main characters, Harry Stevenson (Morgan Freeman), an elderly professor on an extended leave from teaching. Stevenson and his wife, Esther (Jane Alexander), are quietly mourning the loss of their only son, a doctor, who died a year earlier. Stevenson, however, is still a walking, talking, all-purpose counselor, preferring to cajole and question friends and acquaintances rather than return to teaching.

Chief among Stevenson’s “patients” is Bradley Thomas (Greg Kinnear), the happily married owner of a local café that Stevenson frequents on a regular basis. Bradley’s wife, Kathryn (Selma Blair), on the other hand, is quietly unhappy in her marriage and begins an affair with another woman. Marriage ended, Bradley works up the nerve to talk up a real-estate agent, Diana (Radha Mitchell). Diana, however, is tangled up in an affair with a married man, David Watson (Billy Burke).

Also in the mix is Oscar (Toby Hemingway), an ex-junkie turned coffee slinger with an abusive, alcoholic father, and Chloe (Alexa Davalos), Oscar’s co-worker and, soon enough, his girlfriend. Before long, Oscar and Chloe are engaged in an intense romantic relationship but dreams of a better life seem just that, dreams.

Whatever his intentions in adapting Baxter’s novel, Benton and his screenwriter, Allison Burnett, either didn’t do it justice or simply stripped away whatever made Baxter’s novel unique or engaging. What he left us with are unappetizing, undermotivated characters, contrived, implausible plot turns and clichéd messages (e.g., seize the day, live every day as if it’s your last). And when all else fails the episodic storyline, Benton throws in the demise of one character, all the better to wring undeserved tears for the survivors.

The talented cast can only do so much with such tired, trite material. Morgan Freeman is, once again, playing a godlike character. True to type, Greg Kinnear is the well-intentioned, good-natured, all-around good guy who gets dumped on again and again. Radha Mitchell is, at least, watchable as the conflicted Diana, but the only real standouts are Alexa Davalos as Chloe (but her underwritten role wastes her performance), Jane Alexander as Esther (whose scenes with Freeman are filled with the subtlety and nuance that, for once, ring emotionally true).

Alas, a few good performances in an ensemble drama just aren’t enough to recommend Feast of Love, and that includes fans of the novel. They’re not likely to recognize much of what made the novel worth reading, worth remembering, or worth

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars


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