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Love is a mystery, but does that mean it has to be a ghost story? The haunted romance is one of the cinematic trends of the moment, and about half the time it overlaps another: the tale of awkward lust between an older woman and a younger man. Why the turn toward the supernatural? “God Only Knows” is the musical answer provided by one of those films, Roger Michell’s Enduring Love, which doesn’t follow the matron-meets-boy template, but certainly is spooky.
If love between a man and a woman of similar age is the standard, then Joe (Daniel Craig) and Claire (Samantha Morton) should be normal. But they’re characters in a film derived from a Ian McEwan novel, so you know they’re not, even before their opening-scene picnic is interrupted by a wayward hot-air balloon. A boy is trapped in the basket below the balloon, so Joe rushes to save him. He’s joined by four other men, who are all lifted into the air when a gust of wind lifts the balloon skyward. Four of the would-be rescuers drop safely to the ground, but one holds on too long and falls to his death.
And what does this frantically presented mishap have to do with love? As in Peter Weir’s Fearless, one survivor is transformed by the event, which leads to strife with his mate: Joe, an Oxford professor, is obsessed with the meaning of the balloon incident, while Claire, a self-absorbed sculptor, doesn’t much care. Joe also meets the dead man’s wife, who’s fixated on learning if her husband was with another woman just before he ran to grab one of the balloon’s guide ropes. Fair enough, but the central story then arrives from a different direction: Another of the rescuers, Jed (Rhys Ifans), becomes psychotically smitten with Joe. He explains that “God’s love” passed between them just after the incident, when Jed insisted that Joe join him in prayer.
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As adapted by Joe Penhall from McEwen’s 1997 novel, Enduring Love is a theological parable that seems to be trying—but ultimately fails—to avoid turning into a stalker/slasher flick. With his sheepdog haircut, bony frame, and Welsh accent, Ifans is playing a demented update of the comic-relief role he had in another Michell movie, Notting Hill. But if Jed is berserk religiosity personified, Joe is a poor advertisement for rationality. When not hectoring his friends (who include Bill Nighy and Susan Lynch), Joe teaches a class with only one message: Love is a trick played by nature to force humans to procreate. We’re supposed to believe that Oxford students are earning credit hours for listening to a rant they probably first heard from a 14-year-old breakup victim back in boarding school.
Aside from the wackjob presence of Ifans—the guy who tunelessly warbles “God Only Knows,” as if you hadn’t guessed—what sustains Enduring Love is Michell’s assured, edgy style. The director has put the tidy BBC mode of his earlier work behind him, even more so than in his previous film, The Mother (which featured Craig in a more convincing role). Shot in bright yet bleak natural light, the film is characterized by unexpected camera placement and movement and aggressive editing, including Godardian jump cuts. Michell successfully keeps the viewer off balance, creating a queasy sense of malevolent possibility.
The possibilities, as it turns out, are indeed malevolent, but much more banal than Enduring Love’s visual flair promises. The virtues of this film, as is often true of Hollywood-made creepouts, are all in the setup: The final confrontation between Joe and Jed would be intense, if only it weren’t so predictable. By the time Michell returns some of the major characters to the field to clear up one of the story’s minor mysteries, the director might as well be back working for the BBC.
While love dies in Britain, it seems, it’s being reborn in New York. Just a week after Birth reincarnated a dead Manhattan husband as a 10-year-old, P.S. brings back a lost teenage boyfriend as an applicant to Columbia University’s graduate school of art. One day, admissions administrator Louise (Laura Linney) happens to find a last, overlooked envelope and opens it to see an application signed by F. Scott Feinstadt. That was also the name of her true love, a painter, who died in a car crash two decades ago. She calls the kid, makes an appointment for an interview, and isn’t exactly stunned to see that this Scott (Topher Grace) looks just like the old one. She leads him back to her nearby apartment, where they have quick, awkward sex.
At first, Louise avoids telling her few friends and relatives that she’s found the reborn love of her life—ex-husband Peter (Gabriel Byrne) has his own confession to make, and Mom just wouldn’t understand. Instead she takes the train to the family house to recover the relics of her high-school romance, still preserved 22 years later. Eventually, Louise calls best friend Missy (Marcia Gay Harden), who immediately flies in from California—and not because she’s concerned about her pal. This tale has its own Birth-like twist, although it leads to a tentatively cuddlier sort of ending.
Aside from the fact that this movie’s love object is above the age of consent, the principal difference between the two films is that P.S. is considerably less glamorous. Louise is introduced looking into a mirror, an echo of the many closeups of Nicole Kidman in Birth, but rather than appearing prettily mystified, she looks defeated and self-hating. Lonely and insecure, Louise compensates with makeup that makes her seem older than she really is. Self-doubt continues to dog her as her demeanor whips from rapture to anger to despair, but what she doesn’t seem to question is the true identity of her lover. Both movies leave that problem to the viewer, who is presumed to be indulgent of inexplicable premises.
Adapted from Helen Schulman’s novel by writer-director Dylan Kidd, P.S. mopes about campus looking for distraction as much as insight. Though the film is by no means a success, it’s hard to imagine the story as a novel, without the benefit of Kidd’s visual transitions, naturalistic long takes, and indie-rock score (including incidental music by Shudder to Think’s Craig Wedren). As things stand, P.S. belongs to Linney, who makes Louise’s fears and frustrations palpable. But the more understandable performance comes from Grace—who wins sympathy simply by appearing bemused from beginning to end.
If P.S. is Birth all grown up, then Alfie is Being Julia from a man’s point of view. Except that the new Alfie—slick Jude Law in the role that introduced rougher-skinned Michael Caine in 1966—doesn’t exactly have a point of view. Of course, that doesn’t stop this handsome womanizer, transplanted here from Swinging London to today’s Manhattan, from forever addressing the camera directly, boasting of his appeal and explaining his “principles”: bed as many pretty women as possible, don’t fall in love, and never settle down.
Alfie’s blithe knavery might be more compelling if the movie ever showed it in uncompromised form. In fact, four of the five relationships depicted in the film are messier than Alfie’s professed technique allows: Dorie (Jane Krakowski) is safely married, so she can’t ensnare the limo-driving cad. But Julie (Marisa Tomei) is a single mother with whom Alfie decides he’s fallen in love, and Nikki (Sienna Miller) is a party girl who turns out to be trouble after Alfie allows her to move in with him. Lonette (Nia Long) is a one-night-stand, but with the added emotional baggage of being the ex of Alfie’s best friend (Omar Epps), and Liz (Susan Sarandon) is the experienced older woman who turns the tables on him—not for revenge, as in Being Julia, but just because she can.
At the risk of giving away all of writer-director Charles Shyer and co-scripter Elaine Pope’s secrets, there’s one more complication, and it’s a big one. Anyone who saw the original film will have some idea what this development is, but it’s been sanitized and domesticated for modern American consumption.
The original Alfie hasn’t aged especially well, but at least it retains some sense of time and place. Shyer, who has specialized in such treacle as Baby Boom and Father of the Bride, here turns from family comedies to tales of the single life with his sitcom sensibility intact. There is a bit of the ’60s in the new Alfie’s self-consciousness, but its moral quandaries are as quaint as they are lightweight.
Appropriately, the soundtrack offers a suite of new songs in which that old roué, Mick Jagger, questions the dissolute life. In the real ’60s, of course, Jagger was singing, “Look at that stupid girl.” But in Alfie’s version, we understand that it’s the guy who’s stupid—which ultimately leaves us wondering why we had to spend 103 minutes listening to his empty patter.CP