The Love Letter
1999, R, 95 min. Directed by Peter Ho-Sun Chan. Starring Kate Capshaw, Blythe Danner, Geraldine McEwan, Tom Selleck, Tom Everett Scott, Ellen DeGeneres, Julianne Nicholson, Gloria Stuart.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 21, 1999
“Darling, do you know how much in love with you I am?” Well, darling, who could resist such a letter from a secret admirer that began with these provocative words? That's the simple premise of The Love Letter's mistaken-identity romantic comedy. However, despite the familiar letter-gone-askew storyline, this is hardly a You've Got Mail/Message in a Bottle retread. For in The Love Letter the story's outcome is far from predictable and its possible permutations are near-infinite. The catch here is that the letter falls into a variety of hands and every reader assumes the letter was meant for his or her eyes alone. And you know what they say about the word “assume,” how it makes an ass of both u and me. There's truth in the cliché … not that these characters are made asses of (far from it, in fact), but rather that they demonstrate the idea that all of us are permanently wired to receive additional love and all it takes is the most oblique of stimuli to start it pumping. Set in the small New England town of Loblolly by the Sea where everyone knows everyone else's business (or so they think), the film starts off with the tone of a Fractured Fairy Tale. Helen, a divorced woman who has just sent her child off to summer camp, owns the town's used bookstore, which becomes the center of much of the film's activity. The letter starts a reaction that finds her caught between choosing her torrid summer romance with the 20-year-old college boy working in her store (Scott) and the platonic but always out-of-sync relationship with a man from her past (Selleck). Along the way many other eyes meet up with the letter, including bookshop manager and best friend Janet (DeGeneres, who seems to have stepped from the set of one bookstore into another). The permutations are endless, and that's the point. The letter stimulates ideas and possibilities that most probably would not have otherwise existed. Male, female, age, orientation -- these things become secondary in the face of unconditional love. The critics of The Love Letter are likely to bristle at what they perceive to be that most derogatory of things: a “woman's movie.” By that I suspect they will be referring to the film's uncommon eroticism that zeroes in on the sparks ignited by the mere touching of hands or the odalisque languor of a couple spooning in bed. And it probably also has something to do with the movie's ambiguous possibilities and interconnectivity. Though the movie can be faulted for wandering around a bit in its latter stages as it searches for a conclusion, all participants contribute expertly to the production. The performances feel right (except for Selleck's bad hairdo) and the screenplay by Maria Maggenti (The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love) crackles with good dialogue and wit. (The film is an adaptation of Cathleen Schine's novel.) Cinematographer Tami Reiker (High Art) shot this film with an amazingly fluid style and helps foster the story's sensibility of a slightly surreal reality. Making his American debut with The Love Letter is Hong Kong director Peter Ho-Sun Chan (Comrades: Almost a Love Story), who might seem an odd choice for this woman-centric work until one looks at the convention-twisting quality of his Hong Kong romantic comedies. The Love Letter is a movie that reaches for the unexpected; it is worth an R.S.V.P.