[Screen It]


(1999) (Kate Capshaw, Tom Selleck) (PG-13)

Blood/Gore Disrespectful/
Bad Attitude
Tense Scenes
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Smoking Tense Family
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Romantic Comedy: A passionate, but unsigned love letter has its various, unintentional recipients wondering about the identity of their secret admirer.
In the quaint little New England town of Loblolly by the Sea, everyone knows everybody and most of their business. Helen (KATE CAPSHAW), a divorced, single mother, runs the town's bookstore with her associate, Janet (ELLEN DeGENERES), and has hired two college students, Jennifer (JULIANNE NICHOLSON) and Johnny (TOM EVERETT SCOTT) as summer employees.

With her daughter off to camp, Helen hopes to find someone to spend time with, a point that the town's fireman, George (TOM SELLECK), finds appealing. With two daughters and a pending divorce, George hopes to rekindle some decades old signs of romance with Helen.

Things become a bit complicated, however, when a mysterious letter arrives with the rest of the bookstore mail. Passionate and proclaiming the anonymous author's love for the recipient, the letter initially causes Helen to think it's from Johnny, who likewise thinks its from her when he accidently later comes across it at her place.

While Helen becomes confused about whether she should pursue him or George, her mother Lillian (BLYTHE DANNER) and grandmother, Eleanor (GLORIA STUART), arrive for an extended visit, with their trip curiously related a mysterious older local, Miss Scattergoods (GERALDINE McEWAN).

From that point on, and as the letter inadvertently goes from one person to the next, including Janet and the town's sheriff, the recipients find themselves thinking about how it and their secretive admirers have affected their lives.

Fans of anyone in the cast will probably want to, as might those who like untraditional romantic comedies, but this film seems destined to probably only attract female teens.
On appeal for some sensuality, nudity and strong language (re-rated from its original R rating).
  • KATE CAPSHAW plays a divorced, single mother who begins a passionate affair with her twenty-year-old summer employee.
  • ELLEN DeGENERES plays her assistant, a woman who allegedly sleeps around, although we don't see any scenes of that, and uses brief, strong profanity.
  • JULIANNE NICHOLSON plays one of the bookstore summer employees who's attracted to Johnny.
  • TOM EVERETT SCOTT plays the other employee who has a passionate affair with Helen -- a much older woman -- is jealous of George, and appears to be drunk in one scene.
  • TOM SELLECK plays the easygoing town fireman who's still interested in Helen, especially since his divorce is nearly completed. He also uses brief, strong profanity.
  • BLYTHE DANNER plays Helen's mother who turns out to be a lesbian.
  • GERALDINE MCEWAN plays a local lady who smokes some, drinks shots with Johnny, and also turns out to be a lesbian.


    OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
    Most everyone, at one point in their lives, has been attracted to someone else who they thought was the cat's meow. You may even have entered into such a relationship with a person who you found unique, charmingly interesting and simply fun to be around.

    Then reality set in, however, and you realized that you had blinders on and that the person didn't quite live up to their initial billing. Suddenly the chemistry was gone, the humor all but dried up and you sadly realized they just weren't that special.

    Such is the case with this week's release of "The Love Letter," a film that starts off in a winning fashion as it courts our approval and actively seeks our adoration. Once it's got it, though, the film begins to show its warts and all and quickly becomes nothing more than a mediocre and occasionally melodramatic picture as it quickly jettisons its strongest element that's described by the film's title.

    Even so, there is fun to be had before our blinders come off and we see the film for what it truly is. Beyond the somewhat stereotypical small town elements -- the nosey townsfolk, the old dog always lying in the street, etc... and appropriate, but perhaps too obvious soundtrack selections -- "I'm in the Mood for Love," "Only the Lonely" and "Love Potion Number Nine" -- the film plays off the ages old notion of mistaken identity first used by the great Greek playwrights many eons ago. As such, it has the fun premise of people mistakenly believing they're the recipient of the anonymous love letter.

    Case in point is a cute sequence where Helen -- ably played by Mrs. Spielberg herself, Kate Capshaw -- begins to imagine seeing and hearing others quoting lines from the letter she believes was intended for her. While some are obvious "suspects," the scene becomes fun when all of a sudden passing groups of people simultaneously start reciting the prose. Later scenes, such as Johnny trying to act out what he thinks were Helen's words, are also charmingly funny.

    Although the film's commercials give the appearance that everyone gets involved in the confusion, sadly that's not the case. Just when it appears that such romantic complications will begin wonderfully adding and piling up, director Peter Ho-Sun Chan (making his American film debut) and screenwriter Maria Maggenti ("The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love") -- working from the novel by Cathleen Schine -- pull the plug, apparently content with what has developed up to that point.

    Despite there being just enough material at that moment to get the film through the rest of its hour and a half duration -- mainly involving Helen's decision of whom to pursue -- the audience will certainly feel shortchanged. That's because that whole complication inducing love letter-on- the-loose element is abandoned just as it was starting to take off.

    When Janet finds that letter and thinks that George left it for her, we're suddenly primed for what could, and should be a resulting comic tour de force. Suddenly we imagine a hilarious and tangled love web forming as more and more townsfolk fall prey to the mysterious letter and their subsequently aroused romantic hopes.

    As such, we find ourselves hoping that person "a" will think that person "b" is the author, who in turn thinks it's person "c" who then believes person "a" is their secret pen pal. From that point on, the film would offer some incredibly funny moments, comic close calls, and plenty of crisscrossing romances in the tradition of the best mistaken identity stories.

    Unfortunately, that doesn't happen. Helen immediately puts the kibosh on Janet's romantic hopes and the expected and anticipated escalation immediately stops there. Not surprisingly, a great deal of the film's humor also disappears at or near that point, and the film then coasts and/or limps toward its conclusion.

    From that point, it begins to take on a more sickly sweet sentimental aura approaching that of Kevin Costner's thematically similar "Message in a Bottle" and must rely on its attractive, and relatively well-known cast and their performances to carry it across the finish line.

    As Helen, the lonely divorcee, Kate Capshaw ("The Locusts," "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom") delivers a fine comedic performance in a role that's somewhat akin to Mrs. Robinson's (of "The Graduate") shy sister. While hers is more of a reactive than proactive role and may be a bit too wishy-washy for some viewer's tastes, it's fun to see Capshaw back in a headlining performance.

    Ellen DeGeneres ("Goodbye Lover," "Mr. Wrong"), on the other hand, never fully gets to run with her material, and as such, simply plays the same wisecracking, quick with the quip character she often inhabits (like on her TV show). Another TV veteran, Tom Selleck ("In & Out" TV's "Magnum P.I."), gets to play romantic "footsie" with his two leading ladies, but the chemistry never ignites between any of them and his fans may dislike him playing a vulnerable character who's been somewhat beaten down by life.

    It is nice, however, to see Tom Everett Scott ("That Thing You Do") return to a halfway decent film after his appearances in the calamitous "Dead Man on Campus" and "An American Werewolf in Paris," and he provides for much of the film's goofy charm. Supporting takes from both Blythe Danner ("Mad City") and Gloria Stuart ("Titanic") are okay, but their characters' appearances come out of the blue and do absolutely nothing for the story except answer one crucial question about the letter.

    Considering the talented cast and a funny, if somewhat familiar initial premise, it's too bad the filmmakers decided to drop the movie's best element and go for sentimentality instead of allowing it to develop into a broad, comic farce. Had the film continued to intertwine the characters and their mistaken hopes into a great big romantic knot, it might have been a blast watching everyone try to untangle themselves, but alas, that's not the case. As such, we give "The Love Letter" -- a decent, but ultimately just mediocre romantic-based comedy -- a 4 out of 10.

    Here's a brief summary of the content found in this PG-13 rated romantic comedy (which was originally rated R, but got its rating lowered on appeal to the ratings board). Profanity is heavy due to 2 uses of the "f" word (1 said sexually), while only a few other words and phrases otherwise occur.

    A woman carries on a sexual affair with her twenty-year-old employee who's half her age. As such, we see some passionate kissing, a bit of fondling, and brief glimpses of nudity, along with plenty of implied sex. Some sexual comments and innuendos are also made, a boy briefly looks at some nude photos in a book, and we learn that two older characters are lesbians, but don't see any related activity.

    Beyond some drinking, including one scene where two characters drink shots and are somewhat inebriated, and that two characters occasionally smoke, the rest of the film's categories have little or nothing in the way of major objectionable content. Nonetheless, should you still be concerned about the film's appropriateness for anyone in your home who wishes to see it, you may want to take a closer look at the listed content.

  • The town's cop often thinks people, including Johnny and later Helen, are "on dope" (they're not) because he believes they're acting funny. He then explains how drug-sniffing dogs are trained to do their job -- "they get them hooked on it."
  • Pulling out a bottle of liquor, Miss Scattergoods announces that it's "cocktail hour."
  • Johnny brings a bottle of wine over to Helen's house for dinner.
  • It appears that both George and Johnny are each holding a bottle/can of beer at a fireworks display.
  • Janet has a beer.
  • Helen and George drink wine.
  • Johnny and Miss Scattergoods drink several shots of liquor, and he appears a bit inebriated.
  • Helen has a drink at home and her mother then joins her.
  • George waits outside Helen's home at night with a bottle of wine or champagne.
  • People have drinks at an outdoor party, including George, Janet and Helen (beer).
  • None.
  • Helen, telling Johnny to put his shirt back on in the bookstore, tells him that part of the reason is that he smells (but she later apologizes and says that he doesn't).
  • Some may see Helen, who's in her forties, as having some for having an affair with her employee who's only twenty.
  • Janet tells Helen that she quits working at the bookstore and being her friend after Helen states that the anonymous love letter -- that Janet now believes was left for her -- couldn't have been left for Janet. As Janet leaves, we see her scraping her keys along the side of Helen's car.
  • None.
  • None.
  • Phrases: "Bitch" (said several times, but usually not said directly to someone), "Dyke" and "Shut up."
  • The film may inspire some kids to send an anonymous love letter to someone (whether for real or as a joke).
  • After they've gotten into a fight and as she leaves, Janet scrapes her keys along the side of Helen's car.
  • Jennifer suddenly appears after having cut her hair very short.
  • None.
  • None.
  • None.
  • At least 2 "f" words (1 used sexually), 1 "s" word (with 2 more possible ones), 1 hell, 1 damn, and 3 uses of "Oh my God" and 1 use each of "Oh God," "God" and "God forsaken" as exclamations.
  • Telling Helen that she had a date with a pilot the night before, Janet says that she couldn't get her seat back in the upright position (innuendo).
  • When George asks Janet to watch his kids so that he can respond to a fire call, she tells them, "Daddy's going to go play with his fire hose (pause) That didn't come out right."
  • Janet tells Helen that she had "great sex" with her date the night before. Helen then says that she doesn't remember when she last had great sex, causing Janet to add that she doesn't remember when Helen last had sex overall.
  • Jennifer tells Johnny that Helen is celibate, but then amends that to mean emotionally and not necessarily physically. When she adds that she adopt that philosophy herself, Johnny asks how she can be celibate if she's still a virgin.
  • After Helen asks Janet if she's ever carried out a romance through letter sending, Janet says, "You can't f*ck a letter."
  • Johnny and Helen start passionately kissing (standing up) and we see him begin to unbutton her shirt. After the scene cuts away, we return to see them passionately kissing on the bathroom floor. During this we see the side of her bare breast as well as him appearing to fondle the bottom of her mostly clothed breasts (along with some heavy breathing, but all played comically). It's then implied that they have sex (and she answers Janet's later inquiry about where she's been by saying, "I got my tires rotated").
  • After Johnny kisses her (but only trying to make Helen jealous), Jennifer thinks he really likes her and later states that she wondered if he wanted to spend the night with her.
  • Johnny and Helen passionately kiss again and moments later we see them in the "spoons" position in bed (seen from behind him and with the sheets riding low toward his butt).
  • The town cop finds a little boy looking at some arty, black and white photos (including that of a bare breast) in a book at Helen's bookstore.
  • We see Johnny dancing in his underwear for Helen and she then joins him wearing some lingerie (a one-piece) that shows her cleavage.
  • We see Helen rise up (clothed) from the backseat of a parked car and then see that she's with Johnny (but don't see anything else other than kissing).
  • We see the two of them in bed together again (presumably after having had sex). As she gets up, we see her walk off nude in the out of focus shot that shows her blurry bare butt and similar brief glimpses of the side of breasts.
  • We learn that two characters are lesbians, but don't see any activity.
  • Miss Scattergoods smokes several times as does Helen's mother.
  • Helen is a divorced single mom (but we don't hear much about her husband other than a message on the answering machine complaining about what's presumably alimony/child support payments, and her daughter heads off to summer camp at the beginning of the movie).
  • George is getting divorced and we briefly see a scene where he and his wife meet with someone (a lawyer?) about that while their two young daughters play nearby.
  • Helen tells her mom that she thought she left town because of her (but she did so because of her lover).
  • Helen and Johnny's love affair -- with her being twice his age (he being just twenty).
  • How one should act upon receipt of an anonymous love letter.
  • We learn that two older characters are lesbians.
  • After they've gotten into a fight and as she leaves, Janet scrapes her keys along the side of Helen's car.

  • Reviewed May 18, 1999 / Posted May 21, 1999

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