Viewers of “Love Comes Lately” may find themselves wishing they had curled up with a Phillip Roth book instead. Not that Jan Schutte’s film, awkwardly grafted together with three short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, doesn’t have its share of charms, most of which are to be found in its glowing supporting cast of veteran female performers. Yet this tale of an 80-year-old Jewish writer making the literary circuit rounds and dealing with a variety of romantic entanglements, is a mostly creaky affair, evocative of not the life at its center so much as the many similarly themed (and less clumsily executed) films that have come before.
With its main narrative thread interrupted by tangential fictions and dream sequences, “Love Comes Lately” often comes across as a less randy version of Woody Allen‘s “Deconstructing Harry” (which was in turn a far more randy remake of Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries“); it’s a mostly benign affair, though, and it doesn’t probe far enough into its protagonist’s deep-rooted neuroses or octogenarian sexual hang-ups.
Part of the problem lies greatly with veteran Viennese actor Otto Tausig, whose crumbling, gentlemanlike geniality doesn’t grant him enough charisma or pathos to carry the film–especially considering that Tausig not only portrays famed writer and widower Max Kohn but also the main characters in the two autobiographical short stories that are meant to further develop and deepen Kohn’s psyche. Tausig comes across as a generally glib actor here, often looking merely befuddled, and in scene after scene he must rely on the compelling actresses with whom he’s paired to bolster his presence.
It’s clear from the film’s sub-“Wild Strawberries” opening dream sequence, in which a train conductor demands of poor Max not only his ticket but his recent sexual history, that Schutte intends to move between light farce and more introspective psychological portraiture, but a more dynamic actor, better attuned to the director’s unpredictable temperament, is needed to pull off not only the abrupt tonal shifts to come but also to convey the ostensibly searing intelligence of Kohn, who gives lectures about “Faith and Free Will in Modern Literature” and whose intellectual frustrations stem from the sense of not measuring up to Kafka.
Thankfully, Schutte has well cast the women surrounding Tausig, and, as each is compartmentalized within a certain section of the film, she is able to convincingly inhabit her role without regard to the film’s precarious overall structure. Rhea Perlman, surprisingly featured as Kohn’s understandably distrusting lover, uses her penchant for measured sarcasm to her character’s advantage, as on the page she might have appeared flatly shrill; Barbara Hershey does some fine, neurotic work as an otherwise obnoxious stereotype, a sexually needy former student of Kohn’s who shows up at a reading (wearing an icy demeanor, and sunglasses indoors, natch) and proceeds to seduce the old man with tremulous determination (judging by this and “Hannah and Her Sisters,” Hershey seems at her best when clutching wine glasses and surrounded by drab bookshelves); best of all, Tovah Feldshuh appears in the film’s final fictional sequence, based on Singer’s “Old Love,” as a newly widowed next-door neighbor whose seeming bon vivantism hides depths of inescapable sorrow. (Not faring as well is the usually formidable character actress Caroline Aaron, whose presence is severely hampered by some blatant ADR work.)
It’s this last sequence, “Old Love,” that stands apart from the rest of the film: bathed in warmer colors (like the lovely Miami Beach sequences of Curtis Hanson‘s “In Her Shoes“) and aglow with close-ups of Feldshuh’s emotionally generous face, Schutte’s interpretation of Singer’s melancholy tale is far more convincing than the rest of “Love Comes Lately,” with its forced whimsy and its arch take on the insular Jewish intelligentsia. It wasn’t much of a surprise for me, then, to later find out that “Old Love” was filmed five years earlier as a short before being incorporated into this film; all three tales might similarly have worked better, served out in piecemeal.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]