Methinks I see these things with parted eye,
When every thing seems double.
—Hermia, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
People are sad in Portland. At least the people who live or come near Jitters coffee shop, owned by Bradley (Greg Kinnear) and frequented by Harry Scott (Morgan Freeman). A university professor on indefinite leave since the untimely death of his drug-addicted son, Harry watches his neighbors and opines in mournful-sounding voiceover, so moved is he by their efforts to love and be loved. “They say,” he says, “that when the Greek gods were bored, they invented humans. Still bored, they invented love. That wasn’t boring, so they tried it themselves. And then they invented laughter, so they could stand it.”
You’ve heard this basic set-up before, of course. Because Freeman is so good at such voiceovers, in which he patiently explains the good intentions of “humans” (usually white humans) who make terrible mistakes and hurt one another, the role is the one he seems destined to play—for the rest of his life. It’s not that he can’t manage other, wonderful, and even surprising parts. But the movie gods, in their boredom, have made the call. So now we have to stand it.
Sad as he may be in Feast of Love, Harry makes earnest efforts to inspire laughter in his sad friends and acquaintances. He appreciates the brave, tolerates the silly, and will not brook the cruel and violent. Most often, he must point out the obvious to Bradley, the most hapless of hapless romantic leads. When, one evening, Bradley’s wife Kathryn (Selma Blair) exchanges a few words with fellow softball player Jenny (Stana Katic), Bradley has not a clue what’s happening, but Harry, sees all. Close-ups of Jenny’s hand on Kathryn’s thigh and Kathryn’s parted lips grant us Harry’s view, all pretty clear. But he goes home and shares with his wife Esther (Jane Alexander), apparently to ensure that you understand what you’ve just seen. “I just saw two women falling in love,” he murmurs. “With each other?” asks the professor’s wife.
The next day, again to ensure that you understand what you’ve just seen, Bradley makes a completely Neanderthal move, dragging Kathryn off to the dog pound to look at puppies. This despite her loudly stated fear of dogs of all sizes and ages. She bears up, names a particular dog Bradley, and leaves, assuming she’s done her dreadful duty and is now free to exact payback on her idiot spouse. Just so, she and Jenny hook up while Bradley discusses the matter with Harry. Bradley believes Kathryn really wants the dog she named after him. Harry pulls back in his chair at the coffee shop: “I think you should proceed with caution,” he sighs.
Sage advice, but no. The speed and clumsiness with which Bradley proceeds are not exactly alarming, as you’re more than prepared by what you’ve seen thus far, but he does act the fool in ways no mortal should. When Kathryn rightly leaves him, the film loses sight of her and Jenny, and keeps a focus on Bradley. Not surprising, certainly, as he’s Harry’s friend and Harry’s narrating, but it’s a tedious turn for the film, which goes on to watch him fall in love a couple more times, including a second marriage, this one to real estate agent Diana (Radha Mitchell). A smoker of organic cigarettes and apparently unable to be truthful for a minute, she’s seeing a married man, David (Billy Burke), when she meets Bradley, and for superficial-seeming reasons, can’t give him up. Bradley believes what he needs to believe. Harry observes from a distance, noting in particular that Bradley and Diana move into an unimpressive little house he thinks is cursed: every couple who moves in breaks up.
Diana’s counterpoint, at least in Harry’s scheme of things, is the utterly sensuous, full-on generous Chloe (Alexa Davalos). When he watches her falling in love with the counter-kid at Jitters, Oscar (Toby Hemingway), Harry feels a surge of hope: they’re so lovely, so entranced with one another, so doomed. The fact that Oscar is a recovering addict might have something to do with Harry’s interest in them, ort maybe it’s just that they each come to him for advice, since he spends so much time on the coffee shop and sounds so wise when he speaks. That he provides paternal charm and compassion is helpful of course, especially since Oscar has a monster of a dad named, of all things, Bat (the usually wonderful Fred Ward, in a depressingly one-note performance).
While Feast of Love is based on a Charles Baxter novel, in turn a reimagining of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it lacks the original’s lightness of touch and sharp humor. Portland provides some essential greenery, the city lights are charming, and various images of enchanting couples a-clinch are almost painterly in their attention to color and rhythm. Still, the overkill can be wearing. “Sometimes I think love is just a trick nature plays on us,” says Diana, in case you miss the Shakespearean allusions. Bradley comes back with the movie’s version of a right answer: “I think it’s everything, the only reality that we have in this crazy world.” The debate rages on. And every thing does seem rather double.