Apparently, people just can’t be ‘people’ in the movies. Gone are the days when individual idiosyncrasy and outright character quirks gauged a personality. Now – or at least in the universe of the post-modern motion picture – issues outside a human being must dominate who they are. A person whose father is a drunkard, who used heroin in the past, and dreams of a life where material wealth will fulfill every single one of his heart’s desires, doesn’t process said problems and then convert them into an overt philosophy. Instead, they are solely defined by them, limited in cinematic scope to be hobbled by such insurmountable social hurdles. The new film by two time Oscar winner Robert Benton, Feast of Love, is a veritable smorgasbord of such ills-defined scrubs. What wants to be a multifaceted look at how emotion moves and manages us becomes a cardboard collection of movie of the week warning signs.
What we have here is a story where everyone is carved out of crisis. Professor Harry Stevenson (Morgan Freeman) is all broke up inside since the death of his son. While his wonderful wife Esther (Jane Alexander) tolerates his moods, she’s desperate to see him back in the classroom. While on extended leave, he frequents a local Portland coffee shop (Jitters – tee hee) run by the unlucky in love owner Bradley (Greg Kinear). Having recently lost his wife (Selma Blair) to a lesbian lover, he’s empty and vulnerable. Still, he hopes to find love, and believes he may have when he meets real estate agent Diana (Radha Mitchell). Unfortunately, she’s not the faithful friend he thinks she is. Elsewhere amongst the staff, young barista Oscar (Toby Hemingway) has just fallen head over heels with little girl lost Chloe (Alexa Davalos). In an odd twist of fate, the energetic couple has two massive burdens to overcome. One is his drunken, dangerous father Bat (Fred Ward). Hers is a psychic prediction that Oscar is destined to die.
Human interaction just doesn’t get this overstuffed. If Feast of Love was indeed a food, it would be a purposeless pan pizza decorated with every topping on the melodrama menu and extra schmaltz inserted into the talky, twice baked crust. Instead of simplifying the story to make everything crystal clear and highly important, Benton believes in getting lost in untold undercurrents. No one is just discontented – they are plagued by literal curses. Happiness doesn’t come from simply being together. No, couples must copulate and spend endless minutes spooning in pre/post sexual congress to illustrate their attraction. Replete with social suckers and lustful losers, this is a movie of misfits, a film better suited as a cautionary example vs. a work of celluloid substance. If we could get a handle on what this director was aiming for, that would be one thing. But the way this sappy story is told, the parts never create a significant sum.
At first, we feel this will be a tale about redemption. Freeman, who basically wears dignity and grace on his brilliantly aging face, could be the center of an intriguing take on forgiving one’s flaws and accepting the horrors of the past. His character has the most inner stability, the most well rounded relationship, and offers more advice than doctors Phil and Laura put together. Unfortunately, he’s one of those ‘unable to practice what he preaches’ teachers. For every beneficial bon mot he gives out, he spends another sleepless night blaming himself for this son’s demise. It’s a tentative situation, one that could easily unsettle a viewer hoping to see something other than 100 minutes of self pity. But Freeman pries more out of his moments than the sloppy script (by Autumn in New York scribe Allison Burnett) actually offers. Sadly, he’s the only actor who can.
On the opposite end of this paradigm is the pathetic Greg Kinnear. It’s unclear what’s more upsetting about his Bradley character – the fact that he’s such a clueless sap, or that this noted performer can’t find a way to play him properly. Maybe in the hands of a more gifted, or daring star, we’d have something to hang onto. But Kinnear actually buys into this guy’s good natured denseness. In a surreal seduction scene where wife Selma Blair is getting mentally bi-curious with a Sappho softball player, our hapless lead sits back and smiles like he’s just let the world’s biggest fart. It doesn’t help matters that every line of dialogue he’s given sounds like a passage from the dimwitted optimist’s primer. We’re supposed to view his unbelievable blind faith as something good. But when it comes out of Kinnear’s mouth, it sounds downright desperate – and rather pathetic.
Part of the problem is the screenplay. It feels like Burnett simply skimmed the chapter headings of Charles Baxter’s book and then inserted emotional signposts from a Lifetime Original Movie. In other instances, she leaves characters so vacant that others must try to fill in their blanks. As Oscar, the dreamer with a Dad who’s consistently two and three quarter sheets to the wind, Toby Hemingway is all tribal tattoo - and that’s it. His after-sex speech about dreams and fantasies sounds like the incoherent ravings of a well potted weed head. This means that Chloe, as essayed by a decent Alexa Davalos must do all the heavy cinematic lifting. Not only do we have to believe in her amiable if aimless gal, but we rely on her to provide her partner with some manner of sympathy. After all, we learn he’s going to die about halfway through the film, so in order to make that event (if it ever comes) resonate, there’s got to be some identification or empathy there.
But Feast of Love will have none of that. Instead, it aims for the little plastic tips at the end of your heartstrings and hopes that by slightly nicking them, the inadvertent and ever so slight tugging will leave you satisfied. In fact, all it really does is make us angry. When the Professor reaches out to Chloe, when Diana’s man whore boy toy calls her the C-word and slaps her face, the movie actually offers up some life. We sense a spark that other sequences have no intention or ability of creating. Even worse, the intersecting narrative with its Altman-esque sense of scope destroys any real sense of drama. Since Benton isn’t out to replicate said American auteur’s epic nature (the running time is kept to a bare focus group friendly minimum) and hopes to keep each important thread in its own isolated arena, elements that should help are left hanging. It says a lot about this film that Kinnear and Freeman end up living next door to each other, yet that fact vanishes from our memory almost immediately.
In truth, it’s hard to assess what would help this haphazard effort. Perhaps if Benton had tossed aside the entire same sex subplot and made Kinnear’s character less of a cuckold king. Maybe Fred Ward’s drunk on a rampage routine could have been scaled back or simply excised. Did we really need the nauseating meet-cute moment when Chloe and Oscar make cow eyes at each other while the Professor predicts their Greek god-like level of love? Even the ‘dog bribe’ bit was a pointless exercise in tacky tween greed. When viewed through all these flawed facets, Feast of Love comes across as a budget buffet instead of a banquet. Baxter’s inspiration for his novel was apparently a reworking of the Bard’s celebrated A Midsummer’s Night Dream. One thing’s for sure – this isn’t Shakespeare. It’s barely Benton, when you come to think of it.