The Love Letter (1999)
Directed by Peter Ho-Sun Chan
Cast: Kate Capshaw, Tom Everett Scott, Tom Selleck, Ellen DeGeneres, Julianne Nicholson, Geraldine McEwan, Blythe Danner, Gloria Stuart, Alice Drummond.
1999 88 minutes
Rated: (for profanity, sexual situations, and brief nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 22, 1999.
An honest, passionate, and ultimately mysterious note is the subject of Peter Ho-Sun Chan's romantic comedy-drama, "The Love Letter," based upon the novel by Cathleen Schine. There's a lot to like here, and even though it is only the start of the big summer movie season, it was nice to sit back, relax, and watch a movie about realistic people; it's just too bad the story surrounding the characters comes off as a mere contrivance, and that the supporting cast, all wonderful actors, are criminally wasted.
Helen MacFarquhar (Kate Capshaw) is a 40-ish single mother who lives in the quaint New England town with the dreamy title, Loblolly By The Sea. The fact that she has a young daughter is completely pointless to the film, since she is shipped away to summer camp during the opening credits to never be seen again. Helen works at one of those cute little bookstores that you only see in the movies; the kind that is constantly swarming with employees, but never has one customer. Maybe it's because the town is so small, or maybe it's because the residents are illiterate, or not big readers. Either way, how could they have the money to keep the shop in business? Anyway, one day Helen finds a love letter wedged between the cushions of a couch, and immediately believes that someone has written it for her. As she walks around the town daydreaming of all of the possible authors, she soon narrows down the list to George (Tom Selleck), a recently divorced father who has been her life-long friend, or Johnny (Tom Everett Scott), a 20-year-old college student working at the bookstore for the summer, who finds the note himself and believes it is from Helen. Things grow more complicated when Helen's best friend, Janet (Ellen DeGeneres), discovers the letter and suspects it to be directed for her, while Helen starts to doubt her blossoming relationship with the much-younger Johnny and sets her sights on the more mature, lonely George.
"The Love Letter" is a very well-intentioned and mildly entertaining distraction from life, but at a too-short 88-minutes, the distraction is not nearly long enough, and is unnecessarily slight. The screenplay, written by Maria Maggenti, is fine with what it has, but desperately needs more meat to it, as the movie stubbornly centers directly on Helen, while the rest of the intriguing characters are more or less pushed to the wayside. Still, there are a lot of nice moments and a subtle deeper meaning that shines through with a quote that appears on the bookstore's chalkboard late in the film. Although the writer of the love letter is eventually discovered, the movie probably didn't even need to resolve such a thing, as the major thread running through the film is that of Helen's self-discoveries about herself, and her life. It was also a pleasant change of pace to include a conclusion that doesn't turn out quite as you might predict, but that is stronger because of its honesty.
Kate Capshaw, recently seen in numerous indie films ("The Locusts," "The Alarmists"), jumped onto the scene in 1984's rousing adventure, "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (where she met a guy named Spielberg and married him), but "The Love Letter" is her first major film vehicle in a long time. I like her, and yet it's funny how so many movies choose the most uninteresting character to be the center. This is exactly what happens in "The Love Letter," as all of the characters around her are more original, starting with Tom Everett Scott, as the young man of Helen's desires. Scott has stumbled lately in such mediocre fare as "An American Werewolf in Paris" and "Dead Man on Campus," but he has found a better role here. Playing off of him splendidly is Julianne Nicholson, a young woman closer to his age who has strong feelings for him, even though he's too concerned with Helen to really process it. But the absolute bright spot in the cast is Ellen DeGeneres, who is so very good in everything she's in that, if I were to make a movie, she'd be the first one I'd cast. She is the picture's comic highlight (as usual), but is not merely replaying her other characters, and has a serious scene with Capshaw that is perhaps the most powerful moment in the film. Meanwhile, Blythe Danner and Gloria Stuart (her first role since "Titanic") briefly appear as Helen's mother and grandmother, but have nothing to do, particularly Stuart, one of the sweetest old ladies I've ever set eyes upon. It's a real shame she was put in such a throwaway role, but does garner a few laughs in only her three scenes.
Like Loblolly By The Sea, "The Love Letter" is an enjoyable enough way to spend an hour and a half, but doesn't end up having much to offer in the way of substance. On Oprah this week, Capshaw said that when she read the novel from which this adaptation stems from, she fell in love with the idea of it becoming a motion picture and immediately joined on as star and producer (it probably didn't hurt that she is married to Mr. Dreamworks SKG). Either the book must have been infinitely superior, or Capshaw should have definately held out for a better project.
©1999 by Dustin Putman