Passion postage is due in `The Love Letter'

May 21, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Kate Capshaw exudes a worn beauty in "The Love Letter," in which she plays Helen McFarquhar, an embittered bookstore owner who is given a second chance at love. Though Helen never thaws out into a character the audience can warm up to, this quirky romantic comedy has enough original characters, cozy atmosphere and plot twists to keep filmgoers interested, if not passionately engaged.

After sending her daughter off to summer camp, McFarquhar happens upon an anonymous letter squeezed into the cushions of a couch in her shop. "Dearest," it begins. "Do you know how in love with you I am?" What follows is a poetic declaration of unrequited love ("You are all wrong for me and I know it...."), and Helen, having abandoned the idea of love after her divorce, is convinced it is intended for her. Who wrote it? Her store manager and best friend Janet (Ellen DeGeneres)? Johnny (Tom Everett Scott), the handsome, well-built college student she hired for the summer? George (Tom Selleck), the town fireman and Helen's high school sweetheart? "The Love Letter" has great fun as Helen tries on different suitors for size.

Through a series of mistaken assumptions, Helen finally thinks she has found her correspondent, but when the letter falls into other hands, a series of revelations is put into play that will send the tiny New England town of Loblolly-by-the-Sea into a tizzy of crossed signals and romantic swoons.

Directed by the Hong Kong filmmaker Peter Ho-sun Chan, "The Love Letter," which is based on a Cathleen Schine novel, deserves credit for never quite going in the expected direction.

This mild-mannered romance may not bear up under close scrutiny (Helen's daughter, for example, turns out to be a strangely gratuitous character), but it still bears a nicely understated emotional tone, and comes up with a surprising share of refreshing twists. Schine and screenwriter Maria Maggenti have created characters just off-center enough from the stock small town eccentrics to be genuinely interesting.

Especially good here are DeGeneres as the freewheeling Janet (the movie's most dependable comic relief) and Julianne Nicholson as a fiery women's studies student who works in Helen's shop.

The kitten-voiced Geraldine McEwan is a wry delight as the chain-smoking Miss Scattergoods (a bit of business with a child's sparkler is especially amusing). When Blythe Danner and Gloria Stuart show up as Helen's mother and grandmother, the story grows even more complicated and subtly funny.

The same premise that drove "Message in a Bottle," a treacly, mawkish soap opera, is deployed with much more cleverness by Ho-sun Chan, who has photographed Manchester, Mass., which plays Loblolly-by-the-Sea, to exploit its quaintness and charm.

And he keeps things moving at a good clip thanks to some quick, impressionistic editing, although he relies a bit too heavily on collapsing table tops and other pratfalls for laughs.

But there's still a big piece missing from "The Love Letter," and that's Helen herself.

As self-involved, imperious and distant as she is, it's difficult to see why she would be the object of so many affections. (After all, a great body and a gorgeous face, both of which Capshaw possesses in spades, only go so far. Don't they?)

By the end of the movie, when the true identity of the letter writer is revealed and Helen supposedly finds her own inner truth, she still hasn't loosened up into someone we want to see triumph.

For want of a more likable heroine, "The Love Letter" is simply a picturesque, mildly entertaining diversion -- a respectable antidote to this summer's space-age bombast, at least for now.

`The Love Letter'

Starring Kate Capshaw, Blythe Danner, Ellen DeGeneres, Tom Selleck

Directed by Peter Ho-sun Chan

Rated PG-13 (some sensuality, nudity and strong language)

Running time 89 minutes

Released by Dreamworks Pictures

Sun score ** 1/2

Pub Date: 5/21/99

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