[Screen It]

(2007) (Javier Bardem, Giovanna Mezzogiorno) (R)

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Drama: A man must contend with his lifelong love of a woman whom he cannot have.
It's 1879 and Florentino Ariza (UNAX UGALDE) is a young Columbian man working in the Cartagena telegraph office run by Lotario Thugut (LIEV SCHREIBER). One day on the job, he spots the lovely Fermina Urbino (GIOVANNA MEZZOGIORNO) and is instantly smitten.

Unfortunately for him, her donkey trader father, Lorenzo Daza (JOHN LEGUIZAMO), has grand hopes for her, and certainly doesn't want her marrying someone of Florentino's status. Accordingly, and when things get more serious between the two teens, Lorenzo moves her far away, where she is reunited with her saucy cousin, Hildebranda Sanchez (CATALINA SANDINO MORENO). It's there, and due to fear of her having contracted cholera that Fermina meets Juvenal Urbino (BENJAMIN BRATT), a handsome doctor who assures her that she is okay.

That's good news for Lorenzo who sees the physician as the perfect husband for her daughter, but it's bad for Florentino (JAVIER BARDEM) as he'll have to wait a lifetime to be with her. Worried about her son, Florentino's mother, Tránsito Ariza (FERNANDA MONTENEGRO), has his uncle, Don Leo (HECTOR ELIZONDO), get him a job far away in hopes that it will take his mind off her.

In transit, Florentino is seduced by a stranger, and thus begins what will be a long line of sexual encounters that he uses to mask the pain of his unrequited love for Fermina. As the years pass and her relationship with Juvenal goes through its own throes, Florentino's count of bedded women steadily increases, all as he patently waits for his chance with the love of his life.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
Love obviously has quite the positive impact on those it infuses. Yet, it can be just as devastating when it's taken away or denied. In fact, the conditions of having a broken heart or being lovesick can actually manifest themselves in the physical body to the point that they can go beyond being detrimental to even deadly.

Such is the symbolism and thus part of the reason for the title of "Love in the Time of Cholera." Adapted from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's acclaimed 1985 novel of the same name (that just recently was selected as Oprah's latest choice for her book club -- Suspiciously convenient? You be the judge), the film tells the tale of various sides of love, from the unrequited type, to obsession, sex as a Band-Aid, and more.

For those unfamiliar with Marquez's work, the unfortunate sounding title might end up keeping the intended audience of middle-aged women and more at arm's length (and has been discussed or parodied in the past by the likes of Steve Martin and TV's "The Simpsons").

Of course, part of it stems from the film's setting in late 19th century Cartagena when the disease of the same name was inflicting suffering and death on those afflicted by the bacterium. A suspected case of that leads to two of the main characters meeting, a union that then amps up the lovesickness in the third character who spends the entire film and fifty plus years of his life longing and waiting for the woman of his dreams.

While I can see that unfolding successfully in novel form -- and those I know who've read Marquez's work confirm that -- it has a more difficult time on the screen. All of which is surprising (and disappointing for its fans) considering that director Mike Newell ("Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," "Donnie Brasco," "Four Weddings and a Funeral") and writer Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist") are responsible for the end result.

Besides being second to play in the cholera infected world of love -- after last year's "The Painted Veil" based on W. Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel of the same name -- the film suffers from weak and thus not terribly effective direction, a lackluster screenplay, less than convincing age makeup, and performances that range from mediocre (the usually terrific Javier Bardem, bedeviled by that script) to awful (John Leguizamo chewing up the scenery so much you'll wonder what happened to his termite costume).

The biggest issue, however, is that both the cast and crew fail in their effort to convincingly convey the lifelong love that fuels and drives the film's plot forward. And the representative entries of the 622 casual sex encounters in which the protagonist tries to occupy his mind and loins while waiting for the love of his life come off, purposefully or not, as near camp.

Love may be in the eye of the beholder, but both love of the first sight and obsessive varieties needs to be presented in a way that allows viewers not only to believe in those states, but also care about those afflicted by them. None of that occurs here, thus leaving the film as an empty emotional vessel that will bore many a viewer as it goes through the motions, not to mention the decades as time passes and the film eventually makes its way back to the opening scene (a storytelling device I've never favored).

Beyond Bardem and Leguizamo, the rest of the performances are a mixed bag. As the object of the perpetual obsession, Giovanna Mezzogiorno is pretty enough for the part, but the acting doesn't go beyond competent, and her makeup fails to take her through the years (she looks too old in the teens, and too young as a senior).

Meanwhile, Benjamin Bratt and Hector Elizondo can't escape the feeling of being little more than contemporary actors in period costumes and makeup. Only Catalina Sandino Moreno stands out as the love object's saucy cousin. Unfortunately, her screen time is limited and she alone can't do enough to save this project.

While "Love in the Time of Cholera" won't likely induce the physical reaction normally associated with that nasty, titular bug, it may just render any viewers subjected to it unconscious due to boredom. The film rates as a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed November 6, 2007 / Posted November 16, 2007

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