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LOVE AND DEATH ON LONG ISLANDWritten and directed by RICHARD KWIETNIOWSKIAdapted from the novel byGILBERT ADAIRProduced bySTEVE CLARK-HALL and CHRISTOPHER ZIMMERStarringJOHN HURTJASON PRIESTLEYand FIONA LOEWIReleased byLion's Gate FilmsAt the Sunset 5 and Monica 4-PlexTWILIGHTDirected byROBERT BENTONWritten byBENTON and RICHARD RUSSOProduced byARLENE DONOVAN and SCOTT RUDINStarringPAUL NEWMANSUSAN SARANDONGENE HACKMANSTOCKARD CHANNINGand JAMES GARNERReleased byParamount PicturesCitywide
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.
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.
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