The title is probably a mistake. It immediately puts you on guard: Watch out for the soap! It most likely will be labeled a "women’s film," an unfortunately condescending term long used in the trade for love stories, weepers, and other vehicles of sentiment aimed largely at the post-menopausal set.
Well, gentle readers, this movie is better than that and a wider audience will enjoy it. Yes, it is right-up-to-the-borderline soap, but thanks to a nicely written screenplay and intelligent direction, the soap stays reasonably bubbly and doesn’t leave a sticky feeling on your skin. We’re not talking profound here, but nicely observed, commercial romantic comedy that manages to keep the sentiment short of cloying. Nothing wrong with that. There is a place for light summer escape that isn’t animated, special effected, or from another planet.
Set in a New England fishing town where everyone seems to know everyone else’s business, the heroine, Helen MacFarquhar (Kate Capshaw), is a 42 year old single mother and owner of a bookstore. Helen suffers from SED (severe emotion deficit), ever so cool and uninvolved, keeping everyone at arms’ length. Ellen DeGeneres plays herself once again – like she never left TV – working in the bookstore, her fine comic timing put to good use. Then there’s young feminist college student Jennifer (Julianne Nicholson), mooning over young college stud boy Johnny (Tom Everett Scott), who only has eyes for (gasp!) Helen, more than twice his age. Oh yes, charming Tom Selleck, with the absolutely worst haircut (or hairpiece?) of the year, plays the local fireman who has also been in love with Helen for years. Of course, they each married someone else and his thing for Helen has been one long series of mistimings and miscues.
The setup, then: Everybody is miserably unconnected. The solution? (All together now): The Love Letter! Helen finds an unaddressed, unsigned love letter at the bookstore which triggers the whole chain of events. And, as the story unfolds, other characters see the letter, too, and make assumptions about who sent it to whom, thereby further complicating who is going to do (or did) what with whom. Have we been sufficiently confusing here? We will not spoil it for you by telling more of the plot.
Maria Maggenti’s screenplay is skillful, doesn’t let the soap thicken, and has a solid handful of funny lines. A plus for her is that she knows when to end a scene, something too many writers have forgotten or never learned, letting scenes drag on far after they have served their purpose. Peter Ho-Sun Chan, a well known Hong Kong filmmaker, makes his American debut with The Love Letter. He has turned out a fresh looking film, avoided most of the cliches (except the one about the dog sleeping in the road – not once but twice), and kept it crisply enough above the sudsy level. If the choices of music were his responsibility, we’ll chalk that up to his different heritage. The main title I’m in the Mood for Love is the right lyric, but the associations and period of the song didn’t seem right here – too Woody Allen. And the tango rhythm (complete with bandone�n) that runs through most of the film is lovely, but in the wrong movie.
So – a love story, a tale of romance awry and needing to be set back on track, with a single woman who owns a bookstore, the employees providing more fodder for plot and jokes, and a letter providing the plot impetus. Sounds like the title should have been You’ve Got Snail Mail.