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A strange synergy links women and movies about letters. Sociologists might account for this phenomenon as a hangover from the days before women entered the workplace and were stuck with the responsibility of domestic correspondence. Some Freudians, no doubt, would point out the similarity between envelopes and female genitalia. I can offer conclusive evidence that such a synergy exists but am hard pressed to provide a satisfying explanation.

Think about it: Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives, in which an epistle from a temptress informs a trio of suburban housewives that she’s about to run off with one of their husbands. Max Ophuls’ sublime Letter From an Unknown Woman, a romantic tragedy framed by a dying woman’s written confession of her lifelong obsession with a narcissistic concert pianist. William Wyler’s The Letter, a steamy Bette Davis vehicle in which the titular document becomes an instrument of blackmail in a crime of passion. Letter to Brezhnev, wherein the titular epistle is penned by two Liverpool girls requesting permission to visit Moscow for a reunion with a pair of Russian sailors. Love Letters (1945), in which Jennifer Jones marries a soldier who sent her tender billets-doux only to discover that he’s a sadist whose letters were really composed by a friend. And Love Letters (1983), featuring Jamie Lee Curtis as a young woman who begins an affair with an older married man after discovering a cache of her dead mother’s letters to a secret lover.

And now we have The Love Letter. Not only are six of the eight principal characters female, but the movie was written, photographed, edited, and produced by women. Hong Kong-born Peter Ho-sun Chan (Comrades: Almost a Love Story), the rooster in this cinematic hen house, makes his American debut with this offbeat comedy-drama in which the mysterious appearance of an anonymous love letter disrupts the lives of the residents of a picturesque New England coastal town.

The opening scenes of the film, adapted from Cathleen Schine’s novel by Maria Maggenti, threaten to overwhelm viewers with whimsy. The town’s name, Loblolly by the Sea, leads one to fear the worst, and its denizens—the larky staff of a quaint book shop, a twinkly postmistress, a fireman who rescues errant deer from living rooms, an acerbic eccentric named Miss Scattergoods—are too adorable for words. But as the movie unfolds, its summery atmosphere and unexpected narrative twists make it bearable if less than engrossing.

Kate Capshaw stars as Helen, the divorced, emotionally withdrawn bookstore proprietor who first receives the ardent missive. She narrows its possible author to two male acquaintances, Johnny (Tom Everett Scott), a college student employed in her shop, and fireman George (Tom Selleck), a high school friend who has long carried a torch for her. Subsequently, the letter passes through the hands of others, who assume that they are the intended recipients: Janet (Ellen DeGeneres), Helen’s business manager, and Johnny’s contemporary Jennifer (Julianne Nicholson), a clerk. Only after the introduction of still more characters—Helen’s nomadic mother (Blythe Danner) and her good-natured grandmother (Gloria Stuart)—is the epistle’s writer revealed.

Surprisingly, the younger cast members give the strongest performances. Clean-cut Scott, whose ebullience nearly redeemed Dead Man on Campus, palpably conveys his character’s dizzy hormonal infatuation with an older woman, and pert, freckle-faced Nicholson is refreshingly unaffected in expressing Jennifer’s unreciprocated attraction to Johnny. (She’s especially resourceful in the scene where she counters his indifference by parroting half-digested feminist doctrine, proudly but unconvincingly asserting that she “does not need a male gaze to validate [her].”)

The veteran players appear to less advantage. Beneath an unfortunate haircut that makes him look like Rex Reed, doughy Selleck mugs to excess, and Danner is saddled with yet another snooty Yankee patrician role. Cast as a man-hungry spinster, DeGeneres reverts to her pre-coming-out persona, sourly spouting self-loathing quips. There’s no point raising the question of whether homosexuals can convincingly portray heterosexuals. If they couldn’t, theater history could be written on a postcard. But DeGeneres might have thought twice before agreeing to deliver the line “I cannot believe that your mother is in love with a woman,” a smirky inside joke that stops the picture dead in its tracks.

Although ostensibly an ensemble piece, The Love Letter is actually a vanity showcase for Capshaw, who is the focus of nearly every scene. The Julia Ormond of the ’80s, she launched her career with starring roles in a series of major productions (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Dreamscape, Black Rain) but proved to be a blond bombshell who failed to detonate. Her recent comeback appearances in How to Make an American Quilt and The Locusts suggest that she’s unlikely to do much better this time around. Parched in both spirit and appearance, Capshaw is a chilly, opaque performer, lacking the necessary sparkle and spontaneity to impersonate an excessively controlled divorcee unexpectedly reawakened by a passionate love affair.

You don’t have to be a mastermind to figure out that Capshaw was given the opportunity to co-produce and star in The Love Letter because she’s married to Steven Spielberg, one of the head honchos of DreamWorks, the studio that bankrolled the picture. However, the production notes try to sell us a different story. Capshaw, we’re told, was so taken with Schine’s novel that she acquired the film rights even before she finished reading the book. An unidentified publicist takes up the account from there:

Capshaw first began shopping the project around to smaller independent film companies. It was not until her husband, Steven Spielberg, began noticing piles of books and papers building on the kitchen counter that he learned that she had bought the rights to The Love Letter. He asked if she planned to bring it to DreamWorks. Capshaw recalls, “I said, ‘No, no. It’s a really small movie,’ to which he replied, ‘At least let us pass on it first.’ I knew that it was a small movie and was quite comfortable with them passing on it, but they liked it. Suddenly, we had a movie.”

Send photocopies copies of the above paragraph along with a dollar to 10 friends. Within two weeks, you’ll be as rich as Steven Spielberg. CP