The Love Letter (review)

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Literary Love Potion

I get tired of romantic comedies in which perky, upbeat, generally happy people meet cute and then fall beautifully and dewily into each other’s arms (see You’ve Got Mail). It’s so much more interesting to see realistically screwed up people fumbling their way around relationships (As Good as It Gets falls into that category; Annie Hall, while funny, goes a little too far into neuroses for my taste). That’s why I liked The Love Letter so much.

Helen MacFarquhar (Kate Capshaw) is pretty screwed up. Divorced and the mother of a young girl, she’s “emotionally celibate,” according to one fellow resident of the small fishing village Loblolly By The Sea, and just plain “weird,” says another. She’s convinced her mother (Blythe Danner, from The X-Files and Mad City) hates her, seeing as how Mom left town just as Helen moved back. The owner of a messily overflowing book store, she’s sour and nasty to her manager, Janet (EDtv‘s Ellen DeGeneres); an employee simply says that for Helen, it’s “liberating to be a bitch.” Seemingly contradictorily, all the men in town are in love with Helen. And yet that’s not a contradiction at all — a female aura of distant unattainability often has opposite the intended affect on male affections.
That’s why I like Helen — she’s real. She’s not perfect. She’s gorgeous but doesn’t use her attractiveness as a weapon. She reveals her vulnerability — ah, she’s not so aloof after all — when she finds, hidden in the cushion of a sofa in the book store, an envelopeless love letter, addressed only to “Dearest” and signed only “Yours.” The thought of a secret admirer sets her on fire, and in an amusing montage she imagines all sorts of townsfolk reading the letter to her, including, refreshingly, women as well as men.

Helen finally settles on the idea that Johnny (Tom Everett Scott), a college student working in the shop for the summer, is the letter’s author. In a lively turnabout, he accidentally reads the letter and believes that Helen has written it to him — now he is suddenly enamored of her, and they fall madly into bed. (Helen’s mother later approvingly tells Helen that her affair is “very French,” Johnny being a good twenty years younger than her — and how delightful that is to see in a film.) The idea that just the idea that someone is in love with us is enough to spark off passion is an intriguing one, and probably closer to the truth than most of us would like to think. Romance in The Love Letter actually is the illusion we never want to acknowledge it is.

The letter gets passed around some more (sometimes in ways a little too contrived), igniting previously hidden desires and provoking an almost endless game of “she loves him, he loves her, she loves someone else.” Janet is sure that the local fireman and opera lover, George (Tom Selleck, from In and Out), wrote the letter to her (she’s secretly in love with him), while George is still wondering about a different love letter he wrote to Helen years earlier.

Like a New England version of Northern Exposure, The Love Letter is full of intriguingly offbeat characters — from the nosy postmistress to the suspicious cop to Helen’s dotty grandmother (Titanic‘s Gloria Stuart) to the almost otherworldy Miss Scattergoods (Geraldine McEwan), who works at the local historical society — with their own romantic secrets. Unsentimental and wonderfully modest, The Love Letter is that rare pleasure: a prickly yet succulent romantic comedy.

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