Casanova (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

What happens when movie producers cross Three's Company with Masterpiece Theater? The result would be similar to what Touchstone Pictures has provided with Casanova, a farcical romantic comedy period piece. It's worth noting that producing a farce in a way that's funny is a lost art, and director Lasse Hallström hasn't found it. Casanova is occasionally amusing, but never uproarious, and the romantic elements are tepid at best. The film relies on multiple layers of mistaken identity - a plot device that wears out its welcome long before the movie has moved into its stretch run.

The film is based loosely on real events, although at no time does Casanova make such a claim via a caption. That's the proper approach, because the only factual aspects of the film are a few names, dates, and places. For example, there really was a man named Giacomo Casanova who was famed for his womanizing exploits, a city called Venice did (and does) exist, and 1753 (the year in which these events purportedly take place) appears on most calendars. Then there's the Inquisition, whose appearance in the film is unanticipated. But then no one expects the… Inquisition.

When the film opens, our randy hero (Heath Ledger) is in search of a wife. Apparently, he risks deportation from Venice unless he can show (at least publicly) that he has cleaned up his act. His first choice is famed virgin Victoria (Natalie Dormer), whose pure-as-the-driven-snow reputation is belied by her naughty looks and naughtier mouth. But, no sooner has Casanova arranged a marriage deal with her father, Donato (Stephen Greif) than his attention is caught by Francesca (Sienna Miller), a firebrand feminist who despises Casanova and all he stands for. So, of course, he pretends to be someone else. She is engaged to be married to Papprizzio (Oliver Platt), the "king of pork lard," but she has never met him. So Casanova takes his identity to woo Francesca. Meanwhile, one of the Vatican's most fearsome inquisitors, Pucci (Jeremy Irons, playing the role like he is in a Monty Python skit), arrives in Venice with the sole objective of hanging Casanova. He is immediately misled, thinking Papprizzio to be the lothario. Meanwhile, Papprizzio mistakes Francesca's mother (Lena Olin) for his fiancé. Much confusion ensues, but not nearly as much hilarity as one might suppose. And it all leads to an ending that will have knowledgeable members of the audience screaming, "Deus ex machina!"

Casanova has an odd tone. The film isn't bawdy enough to be a sex romp (there's no nudity and the sex scenes are discreet and playful - hardly worth the R rating the MPAA slapped the film with), and none of the characters are well enough developed for us to care about them. The plot is about what one would expect from something this feather-light: it doesn't hold up even to cursory inspection. There's even a sequence that mirrors the 18th century equivalent of a man having two dates and the same party, and trying to hide one from the other as he shuttles back and forth between them.

Hallström is best known as a director of darker material (My Life as a Dog, The Cider House Rules). Prior to Casanova, his lightest prior effort was Chocolat, which was mediocre. This movie provides further indication that he's not well-suited to material with limited substance. Since Casanova has little to offer plot-wise or character-wise, it relies entirely on its ability to enchant audiences with its humor. And, despite moments of mirth, there's not enough here to hold one's attention for nearly two hours. Casanova's momentum starts to flag around the half-way mark. After a while, all the mistaken identities become tiresome. This is one plot device that should not be overused, but it is.

If Casanova is a disappointment, it can't be blamed on the actors. Although Heath Ledger is merely adequate (and doesn't show anything close to what's on display in Brokeback Mountain), many of his co-stars explore the craft of scene-stealing: Lena Olin, Oliver Platt, Jeremy Irons. Sienna Miller is consistently good, and appears so physically different from her previous roles as to be almost unrecognizable. (She's still attractive, but the blond locks have been replaced by red ones.)

It's hard to imagine Casanova finding an audience. It's too juvenile for those who typically enjoy period pieces (even farcical ones). And those with an affinity for the silliness, slapstick, and tomfoolery of this sort of comedy will be turned off by the costumes. It's just as well because, for all of its uneven and inconsequential charms, Casanova doesn't offer enough to validate the price of admission.

Casanova (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2005-12-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1