Brazilian filmmaker Bruno Barreto lucked out with his third feature, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1978), a comedy about a woman torn between her wimpy spouse and the randy ghost of her dead mate. This surefire narrative gimmick, pinched from Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, along with Sonia Braga’s voluptuous presence in the title role, distracted moviegoers from noticing the director’s plodding approach to the material.

None of the 11 features Barreto made since Dona Flor enjoyed critical or commercial success in the U.S. For the last decade, he’s partnered and had a child with actress Amy Irving, and made two flop films featuring her, A Show of Force and Carried Away. His most ambitious effort to date, 1997’s Four Days In September, dealt with five naive Brazilian student revolutionaries who kidnap an American ambassador in 1969 in an attempt to blackmail the country’s military dictatorship. In his oddly perverse refusal to choose sides, Barreto sabotaged this potentially stirring real-life story by including laughably misconceived scenes intended to create sympathy for the state’s neo-fascist torturers.

Barreto dedicates his latest movie, Bossa Nova, to the memories of Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and French filmmaker Francois Truffaut. If those artists were alive, they might find the tribute well intentioned but somewhat embarrassing. Reminiscent of Truffaut’s floundering latter-day attempts at romantic comedy (The Man Who Loved Women, Love on the Run) and scored with uninspired new interpretations of Jobim’s songs, Bossa Nova amounts to little more than a leaden caprice.

Based on Sergio Sant’Anna’s novel Miss Simpson, the movie takes the form of a Shakespearean comedy. An assortment of innocent and experienced lovers wander about Rio de Janeiro in search of ideal mates. English teacher Mary Ann Simpson (Irving) functions as the screenplay’s focal character, a lonely American ex-stewardess mourning the death of her Brazilian pilot-husband. Her students include Pedro Paulo (Antonio Fagundes), a lawyer whose wife has abandoned him for a Chinese tai chi instructor; Nadine, a dreamy young woman involved in an Internet flirtation with a man who claims to be a Manhattan artist; and Acacio, a macho soccer star whose contract has been sold to an English team. Pedro Paulo’s father and half-brother, Roberto, run a tailor shop in the building that houses Mary Ann’s school. Both Roberto and Acacio are drawn to Sharon, a smart, vivacious law intern working for Pedro Paulo’s firm.

Most of these skimpily developed characters fall in and out of love several times before matters get sorted out in a predictably frenzied but awkwardly contrived denouement. Making such a complex romantic ballet work requires the deftest directorial touch, something that Barreto has yet to evolve. He has called Bossa Nova a present to his significant other, who, perhaps, should be wary of Brazilians bearing gifts. Like the other characters, Mary Ann is so flatly written that Irving can’t find a way to bring the role to life. It hardly helps that the usually radiant actress is so unflatteringly photographed that she appears parched and sallow, like a wilted flower child. Rio, of which we’re shown disappointingly little, hardly fares better as viewed through Pascal Rabaud’s camera. His images are drab and shadowy, stylistically at odds with the comic souffle Barreto attempts to whip up.

Eumir Deodato’s soundtrack, based on Jobim themes, should have been Bossa Nova’s saving grace, but even it turns out to be something of a disappointment. An elegant fusion of samba rhythms and West Coast cool jazz, bossa nova (“new disturbance”—”bossa” being the hump on an ox’s back—but the term quickly became Americanized as the “new thing”) first reached our shores in 1962. The year before, the D.C. area guitarist Charlie Byrd had visited Brazil on a State Department tour and been captivated by the fresh sounds he encountered there. Back home, he collaborated with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz on 1962’s album Jazz Samba, which astonished music business gurus by entering the Billboard pop chart and remaining there for 70 weeks. The music’s lambent melodies and subtle syncopations, combined with the soft consonants and airy sibilants of its Portuguese lyrics, aurally transported Americans to the shimmering beaches of Copacabana.

Jobim emerged as the most innovative, resourceful, and prodigious bossa nova composer, achieving a stature in Brazilian music comparable to George Gershwin’s and Duke Ellington’s in our own culture. Collaborating with poet Vinicius de Moraes and other lyricists, Jobim wrote insinuating melodies that have become international standards, among them “One Note Samba,” “How Insensitive,” “Wave,” “No More Blues,” “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars,” “The Waters of March,” and “The Girl From Ipanema.”

In anticipation of seeing Bossa Nova, I purchased the soundtrack CD, which includes classic performances by Getz, Joao and Astrud Gilberto, the brilliant singer Elis Regina, and Jobim himself. Unless I was napping—and you could hardly blame me for doing so—none of these tracks have been used in the movie. Deodato’s new string arrangements and the vocal contributions by newcomers Barbara Mendes, Carol Rogers, and Claudia Acuna are pleasant enough, but lack the lyricism and depth of the original recordings. In retrospect, “Useless Landscape,” the Jobim composition heard in the movie’s opening scene, turns out to be an all-too-apt epitaph for the film itself. CP