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(2005) (Heath Ledger, Sienna Miller) (R)

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Romantic Comedy: A legendary, 18th century lothario meets his match in a fiery feminist from whom he keeps his identity secret, all as he tries to stay one step ahead of the Inquisition.
It's 1753 Venice and Giovanni Giacomo Casanova (HEATH LEDGER) is the locally born adventurer with a famous reputation as a ladies man. His latest such conquest -- of a young nun -- has him in hot waters with Vatican authorities. That leaves his local protector, the Doge (TIM McINNERNY), with only one solution and that's either settle down and get married or face the consequences.

Accordingly, Casanova and his assistant Lupo (OMID DJALILI) set out to find a suitable mate for him and believe they've discovered that in the lovely virgin Victoria (NATALIE DORMER). Her father couldn't be any more pleased to give his daughter away, but her neighbor across the street, Giovannni Bruni (CHARLIE COX) isn't as happy. And that's because he's madly in love with Victoria, but has never acted upon it.

His sister, the outspoken and pre-modern feminist Francesca (SIENNA MILLER), is in her own romantic predicament. It seems her late father pre-arranged a marriage for her, the thought of which she abhors. But since her mother Andrea (LENA OLIN) doesn't have the money to support them, Francesca is resigned to the thought of a loveless marriage.

Things become more complicated when Giovanni confronts Casanova about stealing away his girl, thus prompting Francesca to stand in for him during the ensuing duel. When Casanova learns it's really her, however, he's instantly smitten, but lies about his identity since she loathes the thought of his real self and legendary status.

Hoping to win her over, Casanova intercepts her suitor, the obese but rich businessman Paprizzio (OLIVER PLATT) who's led to believe - by Casanova and Lupo -- that Casanova is really a renegade author who's enthralled the public but angered the political types with his controversial writings. That writer as well as Casanova's reputation has summoned Bishop Pucci (JEREMY IRONS) from the Vatican who's determined to squash both heretics. From that point on, and as the ruse gets more complicated, Casanova does what he can to win over Francesca, the only woman ever to have won over his heart but who's also the least likely to succumb to his innate charms.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
In Mel Brooks' "History of the World - Part I," the same guy responsible for "Springtime for Hitler" tried to elicit laughs by making a big musical production number out of "The Inquisition." Of course, the real thing wasn't funny as thousands upon thousands of supposed heretics were executed by those representing the Church. Then again, beyond the concept as well as the first few seconds of the piece, it wasn't funny in Brooks' movie either

Undeterred by that failure, Swedish director Lasse Hallström uses that religious movement in his latest film "Casanova." While it's not the main plot of this look at the legendary lothario (let alone a Busby Berkeley type number), it's a catalyst that forces the title character to agree to abandon his womanizing ways and settle down with just one lady lest the Vatican officials round him up.

And thus begins the "fun" of Jeffrey Hatcher and Kimberly Simi's script that's more French farce than a realistic or even semi-realistic portrayal of the real character. Going back to the lighter faire of the likes of "Chocolate" as compared to the heavier themes of "An Unfinished Life" and "The Cider House Rules," the film wants to be a rollicking comedy replete with mistaken identities, misdirection and screwball moments.

Fully acknowledging that it's nothing more than a fluff piece, I have to admit that I like what the filmmakers have attempted to concoct, at least in concept. A romantic farce, if handled correctly, can turn out to be good, as was the case with "Shakespeare in Love" (albeit, not a true, full-blooded farce, but it contained some of the elements including all of the mistaken identity material). When it doesn't work, it can make something like the old TV sitcom "Three's Company" come off like sophisticated, high art.

The result here falls somewhere in between. The problem isn't with the casting, as Heath Ledger and Sienna Miller decently fit the bill as the title character and the ahead of her time woman who bewitches him (and, coincidentally, makes sure this is a 100% heterosexual about-face for him following his turn in "Brokeback Mountain"). And the likes of Jeremy Irons, Oliver Platt, Lena Olin and Charlie Cox are generally fine in their respective roles.

Instead, it's that everything is so superficial - especially the construction of the characters -- that it feels like a Cliffs Notes version of history, even when one acknowledges its obvious, light nature. Everyone here's game for the attempt, but so much attention was paid to the farcical elements that most of the characters are shortchanged in comparison. Accordingly, the performers can't instill enough life into them to make us care.

Then there's the fact that despite its attempt at being complex, the plot (and its various twists, turns and more) isn't as clever as it apparently believes it is. While there's plenty of misdirection from certain characters and directed at others, and that eventually involves plenty of characters and layers of comedy-based lies, it never carried me away into the world of movie fun, whether from an individual or collective standpoint. Instead, I found it intermittently amusing in one of those "I get what they're trying to do, but don't feel that they perfectly accomplished the task at hand" reactions.

Of course, tastes being what they are, I can see why some would enjoy what's offered, as it's the cinematic equivalent of multi-colored cotton candy. After all, it's generally sweet (if ribald), it's pretty to look at and it certainly goes down easy. Yet, afterwards, you're likely to feel somewhat sticky and certainly undernourished as far as getting your daily comedy requirements.

Perhaps if Hallström and company had included the legendary lovers' other real-life attributes and vocations into the mix - including but not limited to his experience at being a preacher, spy, alchemist and more - I might have felt more satisfied. A moderately diverting piece of costume comedy entertainment, "Casanova" may be attractive and might seduce some viewers with its charms, but I just didn't love it during or after the act. It's certainly not bad enough to justify a movie Inquisition, but it only rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed December 1, 2005 / Posted December 30, 2005

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