May 28, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Kate Capshaw has always had a playful sexual vibrance, and her beauty has only deepened with age, so what possessed her to want to play a character as passive and morose as the heroine of The Love Letter? Capshaw’s Helen MacFarquhar is a 40ish divorced mom who owns a cozy little bookstore in the cozy little New England town of Loblolly By The Sea. One day, alone in the store, she discovers an anonymously typed love letter — an epistle of devotion — stuffed between the pillows of her couch. Convinced it was intended for her, she sets about trying to uncover the identity of her secret admirer, and she quickly settles on Johnny (Tom Everett Scott), a winsome college hunk who’s in town for the summer. She invites him to dinner, and when he happens upon the love letter in her bathroom, he becomes convinced that Helen wrote it and intended it for him.

There’s a glimmer of a winning satirical-romantic idea in this serenely understated mix-up plot. After all, if the merest illusion that someone has a crush on you is enough to ignite your hormones, it says much about all the potential erotic depth charges hidden in our everyday lives. Yet The Love Letter, which Capshaw coproduced, is glum, static, remote — a weirdly repressed comedy of misplaced yearning. It’s like Message in a Bottle without the shameless misty-hokey extravagance. Helen and Johnny embark on a passionate sexual fling, and pleased as I am to see Hollywood present a frank portrait of an older woman/younger man relationship, this has to be one of the least urgent passionate sexual flings in the history of movies. Tom Everett Scott, so winning in That Thing You Do!, is a couple of shades too callow in his naive ardor here, and sleeping with Johnny doesn’t appear to do much for Helen’s mood. She starts out depressed and then becomes…a little less depressed.

Kicking off with Louis Armstrong’s rendition of ”I’m In the Mood for Love,” The Love Letter feels like the worst Nora Ephron movie that Nora Ephron never made. It wants to revel in rapture and grand illusions and timeless dreams, yet its vision of love is overly graphed out and willed. As it happens, there’s a second love note, mysterious in a different way, and a second suitor as well: George (Tom Selleck), a lifelong chum of Helen’s who is desperate to get together with her after all these years. Without revealing too much, let me just say that Selleck acts, uh, nice, and that this relationship is resolved in a way that is not going to set anyone’s soul on fire. Kate Capshaw is right to be trying for stardom again, but this much modesty doesn’t become her. In The Love Letter, she’s a lioness impersonating a mouse. C

Complete Coverage

You May Like