No director alive can make family melodramas as brilliantly as Douglas Sirk once did, but I'd suggest that Robert Benton comes the closest. Though filmmakers continue to grind out weepies by the truckload, it's extremely difficult to find that exact thread between heavy and hammy, perhaps even more difficult than making a funny comedy. Weepies generally tell depressing stories, about death, disease, failed romances, unrequited romances, estranged romances, etc. The trick is not to make the film itself depressing. Most directors make the mistake of shooting the material head-on, which has the effect of bludgeoning the audience rather than coaxing them in. Part of Sirk's genius was his timing; he made his best films in the 1950s when you couldn't show everything. He used his skills, his palate of colors, space and the elements, to suggest, rather than tell, his stories.
Admittedly, Benton isn't as visually astute as Sirk, but he's a good writer, good with words and characters. He has lots of different kinds of films on his resume -- he's often attracted to crime stories -- but his melodramas almost always hit home: Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), for which he won a Best Director Oscar, Places in the Heart (1984), and Nobody's Fool (1994). Even his previous film, The Human Stain (2003), worked on a basic, emotional level, though critics generally dismissed it because of its failure to live up to Philip Roth's novel and its mismatched casting of Wentworth Miller as a young Anthony Hopkins. Benton's new movie has less of a pristine literary pedigree, and so perhaps it will go down easier.
Based on a novel by Charles Baxter, Feast of Love focuses on several couples in a Portland college community. Harry Stevenson (Morgan Freeman) is a professor on hiatus; he and his wife Esther (Jane Alexander) still mourn the death of their grown son. Harry more or less keeps watch over the neighborhood and dispenses advice. He opens a bottle of wine every time he sees someone fall in love. Bradley (Greg Kinnear) runs the local coffee house, and loses his wife Kathryn (Selma Blair) when she unexpectedly falls for another woman (Stana Katic). Bradley's young employee Oscar (Toby Hemingway) falls madly for Chloe (Alexa Davalos) who walks in looking for work. And Bradley falls for real estate agent Diana (Radha Mitchell) who can't seem to quit her affair with a married man David (Billy Burke).
Benton (Twilight, The Human Stain) has a delicate, tender touch for the trouble that follows, with the possible exception of a death scene that's too obviously foreshadowed. A fortune teller (Margo Martindale) predicts the death of one character, and so we know it's probably coming, but Benton sets up the scene in such a way that its only possible outcome is death. Besides that, however, his balance is exquisite. When Harry first talks out loud about the death of his son, it's while dancing at a wedding with the young, beautiful, frizzy-haired Chloe. It's a bright, cheerful day outside, the air is festive, and the connection between the two conversationalists is honest. Harry tells her all the details; that the son was a strong student, that he and Esther had no idea he was in trouble, and the effect is touching rather than distancing. Chloe's open heart (no doubt helped by the romantic wedding atmosphere) helps open our hearts too.
With the exception of a few characters, Feast of Love pulls off a pleasing equilibrium. Oscar's drunken, violent father (Fred Ward) is the film's wild card, but Benton lessens his menace by showing him in short, controlled bursts. Even the chilly, cheating Diana somehow comes across as sympathetic. As Diana, Radha Mitchell shows that her illicit sex with David is not malicious, but simply a kind of sad, self-loathing. Even David has his strong side. He explains that they're both cunning, manipulating people and that they belong together, but he's genuinely concerned for nice guy Bradley, whom, he's convinced, Diana will "tear apart." No, the real problem is that Kathryn and her newfound lesbian lover, Jenny, simply disappear from the film. Without further character development to round them out, they leave a hateful residue, especially in regard to Bradley's cuckold character with his puppy-dog face. It's impossible not to side with him since there isn't any other side to choose from. This is doubly disappointing when Benton spends such good energy setting up the girls' breathless romance, from the early flirting to the gushing post-date phone calls.
Like this week's Lust, Caution, Feast of Love is highly erotic, with lots of nudity and sex scenes, but in Benton's hands these turn into vulnerability and raw beauty, rather than cheap thrills. After Oscar and Chloe decide to make a porn video to earn some money to start their lives together, the video doesn't sell because "they're too in love. They laugh too much." Even Benton's pop music montage sequences ring with truthful emotion, rather than a cheap way to advance some screen time (he gets points for using Jeff Buckley's aching "Hallelujah"). Overall, the film has a clean, clear look, luminous from sunshine and a kind of relaxed haze from too much coffee and studying. These characters may live in a college town, but in love, everyone has something to learn.