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*** Stars
(US 1999) Rated R

Kate Capshaw, Ellen DeGeneres, Gloria Stuart, Blythe Danner, Tom Everett Scott, Tom Selleck

Directed by Peter Chan

Writing credits: Maria Maggenti

Dreamworks Pictures * 88 minutes

Like the overhyped NOTTING HILL, to which it is far superior, THE LOVE LETTER is based around a small bookstore. It's a delightful little fluff of a summer movie, as light as cotton candy and just as sweet. But what is it about movies and quaint little bookstores, anyway? At a time when amazon.com is devouring the book business whole, and independent booksellers are banding together to create a consortium Web site in an effort to survive, the movies are full of people who are actually making a living running adorable little bookstores while living in cool houses full of funky antiques.

This one's in the sleepy New England town of Loblolly on the Sea, one of those towns where joggers are viewed with suspicion, the local coffee shop is the hotbed of news, and each resident is more colorful than the one before. At least none says, "Eyuh".

Bookstore owner Helen MacFarquhar (Kate Capshaw) receives a love letter. It's ardent, almost erotic, and completely anonymous. katecapshaw.jpg - 13823 BytesDetermined to find its author, Helen, who has been both physically and emotionally celibate for years, suddenly finds herself open to possibilities with not one but two men -- George (Tom Selleck), an old flame from her past, and Johnny (Tom Everett Scott) a young man working a summer job in her bookstore. As one of Helen's assistants explains, "Women reach their peak in their 40's and 50's because they're finally free of childbearing."

Oh. That's why.

Meanwhile, as the letter falls into more and more hands, everyone begins to speculate about its origins, and wonder who in town sent it. The letter's poetic tone shows the power of words to open people's hearts and minds, exposing emotions previously left unspoken, and secrets previously unrevealed.

From this thin, yet original, premise unfolds the most delightful romantic comedy of the year thus far, with a picturesque location, vividly-drawn characters, a tight script (the film clocks in at a popcorn-friendly 88 minutes), and wonderful performances.

Kate Capshaw, a.k.a. Mrs. Steven Spielberg, deserves accolades and respect, not just for bringing this work to the screen and releasing it opposite the behemoth NOTTING HILL (for which it will undoubtedly fight for an audience), but for fearlessly appearing on camera looking every year of her age -- and doing it smashingly. Capshaw has come a long way since her screaming-babe bit in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM. katetom.jpg - 19695 BytesHere, she beautifully conveys both Helen's sexual repression and her ambivalence at its awakening by a man half her age. And in a year in which we are supposed to accept Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones as a potential couple, Capshaw is the first to show us that women can play this game too (and do it better, I might add).

Tom Everett Scott, who showed so much promise as the Second Coming of Tom Hanks in the latter's THAT THING YOU DO, and nearly disappeared into the background in the face of Renee Zellweger and the formidable Meryl Streep in ONE TRUE THING, is back in form here. His Johnny is utterly believable as a twenty-year-old completely besotted by a woman old enough to be his mother.

Appearing on screen for far too short a time are the marvelous Blythe Danner (you know, the Paltrow with REAL talent, as well as class and grace) and Gloria Stuart, who emerged from self-imposed group.jpg - 15783 Bytesretirement not so long ago in a little movie called TITANIC. Any appearance by Blythe Danner is a treat, and here she portrays Helen's mother (in a Hollywood age time-warp which only that rarified community can seem to justify) as a brittle woman with an interesting secret.

As for Gloria Stuart, it's just wonderful to see her again, although she portrays Helen's grandmother with a strange combination of sharpness and doughtiness, as if she can't decide who her character really is. Yet her screen presence is so warm and so welcome, that I found myself forgiving the confusion of her character. (And am I the only one who found those shots of Stuart hunched over a table on a sun-drenched porch eerily reminiscent of something else, as if Capshaw and her cohorts were delivering a giant in-joke?)

The other performances are also good, and set off the core cast beautifully. Tom Selleck, whom I'm afraid I often have trouble separating from his NRA views, is once again a revelation as George, a somewhat clueless fireman with a penchant for opera. Selleck has ellenkate.jpg - 16719 Bytesdeft comic timing and plays off his aging sex symbol image with humor and pathos. Ellen DeGeneres provides comic relief as Helen's right arm in the day-to-day running of the bookstore, although her character's near nymphomania (of the heterosexual kind) seems a bit forced, as one would would expect from the country's Foremost Uncloseted Lesbian. Geraldine MacEwan channels Tammy Grimes as Mrs. Scattergoods, the local eccentric.

Tami Reiker's cinematography presents Loblolly on the Sea (filmed in coastal Massachusetts) as one of those places to which we think we'd like to retire, but in reality, would bore us to death. A Fourth of July fireworks scene is reminiscent of similar fireworks in AVALON, and is visually spectacular. Peter Chan's direction is tight, and the film is well-paced.

A good romantic comedy/drama will have the viewer leaving the theatre both giggling and just a bit misty-eyed. THE LOVE LETTER succeeds on both counts.

THE LOVE LETTERofficial site

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Review text copyright © 1999 Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti is prohibited.

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