Feast of Love

The first half of Feast of Love is a near-riot of sex and skin. Every few minutes, it seems, a different youngster is pulling off her blouse or dropping his trou. Nearly everyone in the film is depicted banging or getting banged by someone else, and there’s an athletic undertone to the various pairings-off that suggests the vitality of youth — one woman seduces another on a softball diamond, a couple does it on a football field (and, later, in front of a video camera). Like director Robert Benton’s earlier Twilight, it’s specifically an old man’s movie, and one that contemplates the bodies of beautiful young people in order that it may more fully appreciate the predicament old people find themselves in.

And so we have Selma Blair and her girlfriend cuddling in bed in a soft golden light; we have Radha Mitchell and her lover, a married man, arguing in the un-self-conscious nude; and we have Alexa Davalos and Toby Hemingway — a golden-haired boy whose sensuously curved face may be the prettiest thing on screen, which is saying a lot — failing in their attempts at pornography because their happiness and comfort remains visible on tape. I’m not sure whether Greg Kinnear appears naked or not — both times I thought his character was having sex with Mitchell’s, it turned out it was his handsomer rival instead, a hilarious development given his character’s status as serial cuckold. Ripping a page from Robert Altman’s playbook, Benton deliberately stages a scene where Mitchell and her (married) boyfriend argue in the altogether, culminating in his petulant exit to the front lawn. In a year partly defined by raucous and charming but sex-panicked comedies, it’s a relief to see an American movie so comfortable with the idea of intimacy.

The two actors who are not seen in anything close to a state of dishabille are Jane Alexander and Morgan Freeman, the latter a clear surrogate for a director looking upon the lives of the young. Freeman’s character, Harry, doesn’t quite qualify as a Magical Negro — that role is redirected to a fortune-teller stymied by ill portent — though he is a font of wisdom who wonders aloud if his even-handedness is too rigorous. (The irony is that, although he blames himself for the death of his own son, he’s easily the most innocent character on screen.) It’s his presence that exemplifies the film’s strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, his character functions appealingly enough like a Greek chorus, mildly commenting on the romantic proceedings as he returns home to his wife after a day spent downtown. On the other, he seems to exist in a suspended animation of sage generosity and kindness of spirit that can be hard to take. (And Benton resorts to using his voiceover at a time in cinematic history when even the words “narrated by Morgan Freeman” suggest a grievous cliché.)

The second half is less ebullient. There’s very little sex, for one thing, and it’s marred by a supernatural plot device and a tragedy foretold. The film is too good to need that kind of magic, and Benton doesn’t seem to have his heart in it. Near the end of the film, Freeman leans forward on a park bench and declares, “God is either dead, or he despises us,” which is a momentarily riveting sentiment for this character. It’s countered by a load of happy hogwash out of the mouth of Kinnear — feel-good talk that’s crafted to make Harry feel better about the world. But it’s unclear whether Freeman’s character actually buys that line, whether Benton himself, on the high side of a life well lived, endorses it, or whether we in the audience are meant to accept it. That exchange adds the necessary ambiguity that makes Feast of Love worthwhile, just. B-

Directed by Robert Benton

Edited by Andrew Mondshein

Cinematography by Kramer Morgenthau

Starring Morgan Freeman, Greg Kinnear, Radha Mitchell, Billy Burke, Selma Blair, Alexa Davalos, and Toby Hemingway

Screened 09/05/07 at Park Avenue Screening Room, New York, NY

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

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