Love Among the Ruins 

A Long Island delight, a Santa Monica snore

Wednesday, Mar 4 1998

Nominally a coming-out story, Richard Kwietniowski's delightful first feature will raise goosebumps on anyone who's ever been driven by passion to kamikaze stunts, or become the object of same. Adapted from the novel by the gifted British cultural critic Gilbert Adair, Love and Death on Long Island riffs on the bulldozing power of desire to make clowns out of even the most desiccated among us. The concept is prime Death in Venice: An aging English writer, born several centuries too late, falls in love with the image of a beautiful American boy and pursues his obsession well beyond foolishness.

Embalmed in emotional and sexual retirement since the death of his wife, the suitably named Giles De'Ath (John Hurt) essays a timid shuffle into modernity by visiting his local cinema ("ci-ne-ma") with the dutiful intention of seeing E.M. Forster's Eternal Moment. Instead, he finds himself gazing slack-jawed at Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley), a prettily put together bit player in Hotpants College III who, when first glimpsed by Giles, is giving his all to a face-off with a plastic tomato. Researching "Hollywood's most snoggable fellow" in teen mags and video stores with an avidity he usually reserves for his literary endeavors, Giles educates himself in the intricacies of late-20th-century pop culture, no mean feat for a man so hopelessly out of touch that when he invests in a VCR, the better to study Ronnie's collected works, he's appalled to hear that he needs a television to go with it.

Giles can't tell a telly from a microwave, while the object of his affection doesn't know his Rimbaud from his Rambo, as the author soon discovers when, settled in a seedy motel in Ronnie's hometown of Chesterton, Long Island, he wangles an introduction through the young star's supermodel girlfriend, Audrey (played by Canadian actress Fiona Loewi, looking straight out of Friends). With karma like this, the stage is set for situation comedy, or would be if all the British director had on his mind was an England-meets-America farce with something for everyone in the transatlantic markets.

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Love and Death has its moments of decorous slapstick, mostly centered around Giles' first baffled, then delighted encounters with Americana, in which he is schooled by the solemn counter help at Chesterton's local eatery, Chez D'Irv, presided over by a lordly Maury Chaykin. Yet Kwietniowski never allows the sitcom moments to overwhelm the film's ruefully gentle mood, which leavens the heartsick lyricism of Death in Venice with the goofy idealism of Gus Van Sant's first and best film, Mala Noche. For all its classic premise, Love and Death is no crowd-pleaser. Shot with a muted, dark-brown look that mirrors Giles' dark-brown life, and paced with a measured calm that quickens, but not too much, as he moves closer to Ronnie's bright, well-heeled world, the movie's restraint is well placed. After all, it takes time and meticulous forward planning to dig oneself into a deluded hole the size of Giles'.

Hurt, an actor who habitually roars through his roles as if he's wandered into a gay bar for the first time and is wildly overcompensating in an effort to blend in, brings a quiet, modulated grace to this man who's spent his life buried in the arcane arts and, waking up to life, confuses the two. Despite his age and intellectual sophistication, Giles is a naif so landlocked in his own arty head that he sees no incongruity in comparing the kind-hearted, vacuous, resolutely practical Ronnie to the doomed young 18th-century English poet Thomas Chatterton, or in persuading the young actor that he has a sterling future in European cinema.

Kwietniowski has nothing new or deep to say about obsession. (Who could, in these days when obsession has become the obsession of film?) What he has created is a fresh, plausible mood in which to celebrate the pleasures of acting out a fantasy. And its dangers: Within every repressed virgin (that's what Giles is, no matter how many times he did it with the missus) lies a dewy-eyed lover, and within every dewy-eyed lover lurks a monster waiting to burst forth and wage war on all who stand in its way. What better vehicle than film to unleash the fantasist within? As Giles steps out of his cocoon, first gingerly, then with increasing brio, he mires himself in a thickening tissue of lies that threatens not only himself but the couple who have shown him such trusting kindness, and who turn out to be the worldly ones. (With his straight-ahead blue eyes, Priestley is an open book with a twist of cunning.) In a scene as excruciating as it is funny, Giles ignores all the red flags and opens up his heart. And yet, what seems like a final self-immolation turns into a late rite of passage for the writer, while Hotpants College III, starring Ronnie Bostock with a dash of Walt Whitman, is enhanced by a fillip that, shall we say, transcends the genre.

You can't imagine how badly I wanted to admire Robert Benton's new movie. Partly shot (by Piotr Sobocinski, who filmed Krzysztof Kieslowski's Red) in the gorgeous Santa Monica mansion that Cedric Gibbons built for Dolores Del Rio, Twilight boasts a 21-carat cast: Paul Newman, Gene Hackman and James Garner, none of whom have seen their 50s in a while, and Susan Sarandon and Stockard Channing, both cusping 50. Vintage cast, vintage mood, that's still no reason to pace the film - a Chandlerish murder mystery woven through a love story that's meant to steam rather than simmer - as if it were a cortege at Forest Lawn.

Droopy and defeated by time and booze (he could be Hud, 35 years on), Newman plays Harry Ross, retired Los Angeles private eye and faithful errand boy to his old friends, screen legends Jack Ames (Hackman) and his sultry, enigmatic wife, Catherine (Sarandon), for whom the detective, along with every other male still capable of coming hither, has the hots. When Harry, after hauling the couple's sullen teenager (Reese Witherspoon) home from the arms of a predatory lowlife (an amusingly bovine Liev Schreiber), agrees to deliver an envelope to an unknown party as a favor to the terminally ill Jack, he stumbles onto a trail of blood and money that leads back to the unsolved disappearance years ago of Catherine's first husband, and hooks Harry back up with Verna (Channing), his former partner and lover.

Benton's checkered career includes the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde, co-written with David Newman (word has it, with liberal uncredited help from Robert Towne); the cloying hit Kramer vs. Kramer; and, with Newman and Richard Russo (who also co-wrote Twilight with Benton), Nobody's Fool. In Twilight, Benton tries to pump up a painfully pro forma plot with character drama and meaningful discourse about love, class and power. The actors are saying the right things, only with the slightly panicked air of relatives trying to warm up a family corpse. Neither Sarandon, whose lush sensuality leans more to the blowsy than the ritzy, nor Hackman, with his magnificently battered mug, make plausible patricians. And though Garner, as the family's cleaner-upper in more ways than one, exudes his old lazy charm, Newman is an unaccountably pallid presence. In the absence of a compelling central figure, Twilight just sits there, lobbing movie cliches - among them that overworked stretch of water under the Santa Monica pier - and trying its limp best to do Chandler with seasoning by George Cukor.

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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