Love can be a terrible thing. Sharing a life with someone, building a home together, getting married, having children and merging identities to near incongruous levels are all part of the sacrificing and lifetime decision-making one does when finding “the one.” Imagine being so entwined with your better half for years, only to suddenly lose them forever. The waves of shock and horror must be overwhelming because you didn’t just lose the love of your life, your partner and your lover. You’ve also lost a big part of yourself and you somehow have to find the courage to pick up the pieces, move on and decide how to lock up your memories in the dusty drawers of your mind without throwing away the key. Arie Posin‘s “The Face Of Love” starring Annette Bening, Ed Harris and Robin Williams dives into the psychological consequences of this harsh side of love, and while the concept is full of deep potential, more often than not, this attempt fails to rise to the occasion.
The film opens to the sound of waves, and the shadowed figure of Nikki (Bening) reliving the horror of losing her husband Garret (Harris) during their recent vacation in Mexico. Through quick flashes of dialogue, talk of pot-smoking and tequila drinking, it becomes clear in a few minutes that Garret was the daring adventurer and Nikki his loyal companion. Soon we are met with beach scenes and a disheveled Nikki looking for her husband, only to find him washed up on the shore, drowned and gone forever from her life. Later by the poolside with Nikki, she begins to pace her house like a caged bird; the lighting and score working together to build up an unnerving vibe of suspense. Jump to five years later, and Nikki is seeing-off her grown daughter (Jess Weixler) and giving advice about her current rocky relationship with a guy who sounds no good for her at all. When the daughter reminds her that getting hurt is unavoidable in relationships, Nikki agrees with a sigh. While she did get rid of most of Garret’s things, we quickly come to the realization that after five years, Nikki is still very much chained to her past life.
During a visit to the museum Nikki has an incredible moment when she sees her late husband’s exact double. The resemblance is uncanny and Nikki tells her good friend and neighbor Roger (Williams) about it, who can only mutter “creepy” as response. She says the fateful words “it felt like being alive again” and becomes obsessed with finding this man. After visiting the same bench where she saw him so frequently that she know’s the schedule of the sprinkler system and is on a first name basis with the staff, she finally tracks him down. Tom Young (Harris again) is an art teacher in a local college. The two meet, and she wheedles him into giving her private art lessons. It isn’t long before Tom realizes that Nikki has no interest in art, but after picking up some major hints, Tom gets the courage to ask her out on a date. We find out that Tom hasn’t been with anyone serious for 10 years, since his ex-wife left him for another guy. Nikki pretends that her ex-husband also left her, with the vague “he’s gone” remark that makes her feel better for not straight-up lying. From that point onwards the story takes off like a determined swimmer only to end up drowned and lifeless like Nikki’s ex-husband.
“The Face Of Love” is infuriating for all the reasons that should have made it the exact opposite. To begin with the story itself, Posin has a heartfelt attachment to this concept because his own mother had a very similar inconceivable moment; being taken aback byseeing a man who was the spitting image of her late husband (and Posin’s dad). While the story wasn’t nearly as dramatic as it’s presented in the movie, it stuck with Posin and inspired him to write a screenplay about it with co-writer Matthew McDuffie. The concept is kind of brilliant on paper, but it keeps falling short of truly grabbing you in the movie. You’re left frustrated, wondering why, until the mid-point, when it hits you that it’s written with the depth of a television soap opera. From Tom’s credibility as an art teacher (“Painting is seeing”), to his own secret that he doesn’t share with Nikki for reasons unknown (unless it could possibly be because he doesn’t want to “spoil it” as he tells his ex-wife, which is just lazy writing) and a scene in the car when he professes that he doesn’t “want to let her go,” it feels like the character of Tom is not taken seriously, leaving you with a sense of injustice to the story told. While Nikki is clearly the anchor and the focus of it all, Tom would need to have more personality than a newspaper cutout in order to strike some much needed balance. Nikki’s character dominates, and what should have been a fascinating progression to the edge of madness is rendered innocuous and mawkish to the point of parody, thanks to the screenplay’s insipidness.
The caliber of actors that Posin managed to round up for this picture is something else that ends up being a frustration. Both Bening and Harris are as great as the script allows them to be, but seeing their massive talents constantly stifled by conventional dialogue or abrupt acts of staged emotion is something that becomes a bit of a pain by the end. It’s in the silent moments when both actors shine, and it’s a testament to their natural gifts that they are able to pull off the kind of chemistry which makes you root for such an unhealthy relationship. Robin Williams’ entrance (where he only says “hey!”) is one of the comedic highlights for all the wrong reasons. As the friendly neighbor who is in love with Nikki but never stood a chance, Roger exists solely for emotional manipulation, but he also reminds us that Robin Williams is still around as Hollywood’s harmless neighbour.
“The Face Of Love” has splashes of brilliance without and within its overtly saccharine story. Thanks to the initial concept and the psychological consequences of forcing yourself to be attracted to your true love’s doppelgänger, it’s a compelling watch based on synopsis alone. When heavyweights like Bening and Harris are the leads, the shoddy writing sounds way more profound that it deserves to be. Yet the film ultimately leaves you with an exasperated feeling of watching two Olympic swimmers splash around in the kiddie pool. The suspenseful music evoking a sense of dread is a clever method of keeping the interest but the poor writing and, in crucial moments, rushed editing, are dreadful reminders that we’re watching a story full of promise downtrodden by banality. The terrible burden that unhealthy love can play in a person’s life is a subject matter as deep as the deepest ocean. Unwittingly and unfortunately, Posin took it as far as the shallow end of a swimming pool. [C]