Once again Morgan Freeman plays the wise, old sage in the cast. At this point, he has played a similar variation of this role so many times I think he should get a patent. Anytime someone wants this type of character in their film, they should only get Freeman to play the role, or pay him a royalty.
That said, Professor Stevenson, the narrator and guide through “Feast of Love”, Robert Benton’s (“Nobody’s Fool”) newest film is an interesting character. His narration while helpful is also problematic, serving to draw us out of the film and remind us of how episodic the story is, constantly reminding us of the book the film is based on.
Stevenson seems to have a lot of time on his hands and roams the Portland, Oregon neighborhood where he and his wife (Jane Alexander) live. He spends time at the local coffee shop, Jitters, owned by Bradley (Greg Kinnear) and staffed by Oscar (Toby Hemmingway). Stevenson watches as Bradley and Oscar fall in love, break-up and then fall in love again. As their circle of people grows, Stevenson becomes a member of this larger group. He returns home each day to relate the day’s events to his wife. Stevenson is on a leave from the local university and seems determined to delay his return, as he deals with the grief of his adult son’s death.
I wouldn’t mind Stevenson’s wise words and his sage advice nearly as much if he only discussed these moments with people. When Freeman starts to narrate the character’s thoughts and feelings, he becomes too obtrusive into our interaction with the film. Also, these moments of narration are used to try to hide the episodic nature of the story. As soon as he relates an event in Bradley’s live, we see an event in Oscar’s life, and back and forth.
Freeman is, as always, good. It’s just too bad his performance is so familiar.
Bradley, played by Greg Kinnear, is a bit too clueless to be likable. Initially, our interest is held as Stevenson wisely observes his relationship with his wife, Kathryn (Selma Blair). Just finished with a softball game, the Professor joins the younger couple at a local bar where Kathryn talks with Jenny (Stanza Katic), one of the players from the other female team. They form a friendship and Jenny recognizes Kathryn is interested in becoming more than just friends. Bradley is so clueless; he doesn’t realize there is a problem until Kathryn is walking out of their house. Of course, Stevenson knows right away and tells his wife about what Bradley will soon discover.
Bradley decides to move, for a change of pace. His realtor, Diana (Radha Mitchell) shows him a house right next to Stevenson and he decides to take it. He also falls in love with Diana, who is a bit hurt her boyfriend, David (Billy Burke) won’t leave his wife, relegating their relationship to torrid meetings in hotel rooms during lunch.
Oscar (Toby Hemingway), a young, blond, spiky haired guy with tattoos, seems to really enjoy his job at Jitters. One day, Chloe (Alexa Davalos) walks in looking for a job. He immediately agrees they need the help and Bradley gets the hint. Soon, Oscar and Chloe are in love and their story is, by far, the most romantic. But it also has a few plot contrivances more suited to an afternoon soap opera.
It seems odd to me that Stevenson and his wife, Esther (Alexander) don’t interact with the other characters in the film more frequently, making them seem a bit disconnected, further reinforcing the strange feel of the narration. About halfway through, Esther and the Professor have wine with Bradley and Diana and start to participate with the others, making the film seem a little more real.
Benton is a very good director and he achieves a lot of visual moments that really speak volumes about the relationship between these characters. When Esther walks into her husband’s home office, she notices he is working on his computer. “This is a welcome sight,” she says. She soon learns he is writing a letter to the dean of his school extending his leave indefinitely. This is upsetting to her, but rather than start screaming, she pauses a moment and leaves the office, slamming the door. Stevenson pauses, without looking at the door. This is a telling moment, accurately reflecting the depth and length of their relationship.
Stevenson and Esther do a lot of observing when they are with the younger couples. Over their wine, the younger couple says things causing the older couple to pause. Later, they discuss the events amongst themselves. If they did this once or twice, it would be amusing and even interesting, but because it happens often, it seems as though this couple are supposed to be our guide into the lives of these characters. That’s fine, too. But because they sit and watch so much, it makes them passive observers. Since we are sitting and watching a film, we are already a passive observer. What makes a film great is when you feel you are part of the story, the action, and the character’s lives.
Fred Ward plays Bat, Oscar’s abusive father. He only has a couple of scenes and in each he is drunk and over the top, so he fits the bill. But because he has no development, his character seems odd and since he really has no overall place in the story, his appearances only briefly make Oscar apprehensive. He really adds nothing to the story.
These complaints aside, the story about Oscar and Chloe really saves the film. From the moments Oscar spots Chloe, you can see the hunger in his eyes. As their relationship progresses, you believe they have each found their soul mate and are deeply in love. We learn things about their past and watch some of the decisions they make and this helps to make them more real. It doesn’t hurt that Toby Hemingway and Alexa Davalos are both very good looking and create a lot of onscreen chemistry.
“Feast of Love” is clearly designed as a portrait of three different generations in love, and it works to a certain degree. But the strange choice of narrative device does nothing but serve to take us out of the film, make us a passive observer, and consistently remind us of the book the film was adapted from. Rather then embracing the characters and their lives, it seems as though the filmmakers want to keep us at arm’s length from them.