In 1967, Feast of Love
director Robert Benton got his first screen credit as co-writer of Bonnie and Clyde
. He appears to have calmed down quite a bit since then.
Benton has done a lot of fine film work behind the camera, including Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart
and Nobody’s Fool
. He’s become that rare director who guides memorable, even Oscar-winning performances without leaning on crutches like drug freak-outs, histrionic speeches or celebrity imitations. His are low-key dramas about low-key people. In a cinematic world where everyone seems to be shouting at you, Benton prefers the volume knob turned down.
At times, that kind of restraint can be a wonderful thing. As it turns out, it’s also why Benton wasn’t a particularly good choice to adapt Charles Baxter’s novel The Feast of Love
. An interwoven collection of first-person reminiscences, Baxter’s book placed itself squarely inside the heads of people trying to make sense of irrational passions, or dealing with the pain of having the people they love reject them. Benton provides a calm and tidy interpretation of something that is fundamentally urgent and messy.
The characters in Benton’s Feast of Love
orbit around a Portland-area coffee shop owned by Bradley Smith (Greg Kinnear). A philosophy professor (Morgan Freeman) putters around on a leave of absence from his university job, recovering from a family tragedy. Bradley’s young employee (Toby Hemingway) and a new hire (Alexa Davalos) fall hard for each other and begin making life plans. And a customer (Radha Mitchell) faces a choice between her affair with a married man and a more traditional domestic life that may lack true love.
Because Benton is such a gifted director of actors, Feast of Love
isn’t lacking for some individually affecting performances and moments. The finest work comes from Mitchell, who captures the uncertainty in a successful woman trying to convince herself that she can be happy in a relationship without ferocious attraction.
But in general, ferocious attraction is sadly lacking in Feast of Love
. There’s little evidence here of people loving each other more than…nicely. And for all the skin on display—oh, there’s plenty of it—Benton too rarely gets under it. Interesting though the individual stories are in bits and pieces, they remain at a safe, respectable remove.
The title of Baxter’s book comes from a painting created by amateur artist Bradley, an interpretation of a table spilling over with fruit that leaves everyone who sees it dumbstruck. That painting is notably absent from the film, as is the idea it represents. The sticky, tactile, full-sensory experience of love only sporadically bubbles to the surface of Feast of Love. Benton simply watches quietly as love happens, and keeps his hands clean.