Directed by: Robert Benton
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Greg Kinnear, Radha Mitchell, Alexa Davalos, Toby Hemingway, Jane Alexander
While I am definitely of the school of thought that Morgan Freeman needs to be banned from playing the wise old man who offers sage advice and knows nearly as much as God for a period not less than three years (except when he’s playing God, whereupon he presumably does know that much), I still wanted to like Robert Benton’s Feast of Love.
I didn’t dislike it. There are times when the film works, but more often than not it has the feel of clunky contrivance of the sort better suited to madcap farce than deep-dish drama. Worse, its multi-story plot gets the better of it. Characters do things in a manner that suggests their only motivation lies in the fact that they read the script, and that’s what it says they do. What is supposed to present us with a “feast of love” is finally more like a “$4.99 all-you-can-eat buffet of love”—lots to choose from, but little of it done very well and all of it somewhat tepid. Never having read the novel by Charles Baxter on which Allison Burnett (Resurrecting the Champ) based his screenplay, I can’t say whether or not the film’s weaknesses stem from the original, though I suspect the book might do a better job of explaining the motivations of the characters.
At the center of the film’s various stories is Harry Stevenson (Freeman), a college professor on extended leave over personal issues, who—probably because he’s up half the night taking long walks—spends a lot of time at Jitters, the quaintly named coffee shop owned by Bradley Thomas (Greg Kinnear). There he perches over his java and doles out carefully measured wisdom between thoughtful sips. Unfortunately, he tends to do this in a strictly professorial manner—trying to lead his none-too-bright students to the right conclusions without actually telling them anything. He saves his real thoughts on the matters for conversations with his incredibly patient wife, Esther (Jane Alexander). Granted, Bradley might have resented having it pointed out to him that his wife, Kathryn (Selma Blair), seems to have fallen in love with the lady (TV actress Stana Katic) who tagged his missus out at a softball game by grabbing her derriere. But it is a piece of knowledge that might have proved more useful to Bradley than simply strongly hinting at the fact that buying Kathryn a dog for her birthday might not be the best way to win back her affections. It’s that kind of movie.
Harry—in Freeman-esque God-like fashion—can’t interfere with the characters’ free will. Of course, if he did, it would mess up the storyline. Much the same dynamic is applied when he’s asked for advice by Jitters employee Chloe (Alexa Davolos, The Chronicles of Riddick) as to whether or not she and Jitters coworker-boyfriend Oscar (Toby Hemingway, The Covenant) should make a porno film. At least in this case, the script has the wit for Harry to question his approach, but then since nothing bad comes from his non-advice, the point is largely moot. (Actually, the whole porn-film tangent goes nowhere and seems to exist solely to make a vague comment on the lovelessness of pornography, which isn’t exactly late-breaking news.) In any case, Oscar’s ultimate fate has been sealed in a scene where Chloe visits a Laurel-and-Hardy-fixated psychic (Margo Martindale, Paris, Je T’Aime). Yep, again, it’s that kind of movie.
But the worst part about Feast of Love is Greg Kinnear’s character, the human doormat and prime example of Boobus Americanus, Bradley Thomas. It’s established early on (the softball game incident) that Bradley is remarkably unobservant. This is then re-established so often that by mid-film, you’re ready to buy the guy a white cane. On top of this, he’s just too desperate. This fellow will fall in love with any attractive woman who happens to show even the slightest interest in him. This story device feels even more like a device owing to the hurried development of the film as it keeps track of its multiple stories. Of course, once the screenwriting gods have smiled on him in a contrivance of unusual preposterosity, he magically becomes all-perceptive. Yes, well, it’s that kind of movie.
However, there are a number of things in the film’s favor. The dialogue is frequently witty and it addresses its issues quite eloquently (if only the events were a third so eloquent!). Nearly every scene between Freeman and Jane Alexander’s characters rings true, making you wish the film spent more time with just the two of them. The film is also admirable in the way it accepts and depicts the human condition in every aspect. It’s also nice in our peculiarly reactionary age to find a mainstream film that confronts sex in a straightforward, naturalistic manner with a minimum of coyly draped sheets and artfully posed legs. For this alone, Benton deserves some praise—not for the nudity itself, but for the simple, unforced, unadorned way he handles these scenes. If the scandalized murmurs from the audience I saw the film with are any indication, it’s apparent that screen sex still frightens the horses even while most screen violence has become de rigueur. Wouldn’t it be pleasant if it were the other way around? Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity and language.