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The Love Letter  

Starring: Kate Capshaw, Ellen DeGeneres, Tom Selleck, Tom Everett Scott, Julianne Nicholson, Gloria Stuart Directed by: Peter Ho-Sun Chan Written by: Maria Maggenti

One of my more cynical colleagues once said that filmmakers aren't so much artists as door-to-door salesmen, attempting to sell their "idea" to the audience. Another friend of mine who used to be a salesman claimed the most important aspect in selling something is to know what you are selling. If I were to observe "The Love Letter" from these two frames of reference, I would conclude that the filmmakers had no idea what they were selling.

The story is set in one of those sleepy towns that seems frozen in time - almost in anticipation of something to come along and shake things up a bit. Then one day a mysterious love letter is discovered at the local bookstore. No name, no address, just an anonymous declaration of love. Naturally, the bookstore owner is convinced the letter is for her, and begins having odd hallucinations as she tries solving the mystery of who sent the heartfelt message. Soon the letter falls into the hands of the other townspeople, each one wondering if the letter might be for them.

This premise might have had a chance if the letter in question was at all heartfelt or romantic. If it's true that the ability to love someone rests within the confines of the capacity for loving oneself, then a truly heartfelt love letter capable of arousing the passions of those whose eyes glide across its words would seemingly have to contain not only expressions of love, but also feelings of insecurity, loneliness, hope, courage, and so many other emotions associated with taking a chance on love. The letter in this movie is devoid of any true feelings or emotions. It reads more like the ramblings of an eighth grade student trying to imagine what a true romantic sounds like. An average person on the street wouldn't take a letter like this very seriously. The characters in "The Love Letter" treat it like the Zapruder film.

But the letter is just the tip of what's wrong with the movie. The story introduces us to several characters, yet about halfway through, it inexplicably drops the most interesting ones and focuses on the dullest ones. Essentially, the movie centers around Helen, the bookstore owner (Kate Capshaw) and her affair with one of her employees, a handsome but somewhat dimwitted college kid named Johnny (Tom Everett Scott), whose deepest sentiment is: "I love you more than my car." These are undoubtedly the two least interesting people in the town, but the movie wants us to care for their situation. It goes so far as to set up subplots involving the other characters, then dropping them without so much as an explanation. For example, take the scene where Janet, Helen's assistant at the bookstore (Ellen DeGeneres), finds the letter and thinks it may be for her. We sense her disappointment when Helen, in her typically insensitive way, explains to Janet that a letter like that couldn't possibly be for her. Hurt and belittled, Janet leaves in a tirade. They make up in a forced, clumsy scene later in the movie; but how does Janet feel? Is she still wondering if the letter is for her? Does she still hold out hope for that special person to walk into her life and love her unconditionally? None of these questions are dealt with at all. It's cruel how the movie takes the time to set up potentially interesting situations, then drops them to avoid "cluttering" the story. (God forbid, we don't want anything interesting getting in the way here.)

As a result, the film wastes the talents of a pretty good cast. As George, the sensitive local fireman who always had a crush on Helen, Tom Selleck isn't given much to do here, other than deliver a speech near the end about bad timing getting in the way of a possible future with Helen. At one point, it seems the film may lead to a happy ending for the two of them, but the would-be payoff is so limp, one wonders why they bothered hinting to it in the first place. The brilliant Ellen DeGeneres is completely wasted in a "sidekick"-type movie role. Apparently, the filmmakers don't believe she has any romantic credibility whatsoever, and thus have her exit the screen to make room for the far less colorful Kate Capshaw. The only performance that really captured my attention was from Julianne Nicholson as Jennifer, another employee at the store who falls for Johnny. She kind of straddles the line between feisty independence and a kind of tenacious sensitivity. She' one of the few characters I believe could love completely and without regret.

Some revelations are thrown in late in the story, most notably from Helen's mother (Blythe Danner), but they don't carry much weight, mainly because like so many other characters here, we don't really know the mother and her relationship with Helen. And when it's revealed who actually wrote the letter and the circumstances surrounding it, it makes its lack of emotion even more unbelievable. Watching "The Love Letter", I didn't get caught up in an array of emotional insight. Instead, I felt like I was standing in my doorway, watching in disbelieve as a salesman tried desperately to sell me something. . . . something he knew nothing about.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney Critically Ill

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