Love in the Time of Cholera (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The novel Love in the Time of Cholera is a meditation on love in its many forms. It is a serious work from Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The movie Love in the Time of Cholera is a misstep of nearly epic proportions. As adapted by Ron Harwood, who won an Oscar for his interpretation of The Pianist, this film does as much of a disservice to its source material as The Bonfire of the Vanities. Certainly, there are inherent problems in condensing a 350-page book into a screenplay a third of that length, but those are minor in comparison to what director Mike Newell (Enchanted April, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) has done to the tone. At times unintentionally and at times at the director's behest, Love in the Time of Cholera feels more like a comedy than a drama. It's the kind of motion picture that's crying out to be featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Some of the humor - and I use the word advisedly because it's not especially funny - is scripted, but a lot of the biggest laughs in Love in the Time of Cholera result from hammy acting, overripe dialogue, and melodrama that is so amped up that it goes beyond an "11." One can remark on the impressive set design and solid cinematography, but those elements only make it more apparent how badly the rest of the production has misfired. It's a shock to see a book that has been described as "pretentious" in some circles being subjected to this kind of treatment.

The story spans a half-century during the late 1800s and early 1900s - the "Time of Cholera" mentioned in the title. The film begins with a 70-something Florentino Ariza (Javier Bardem) visiting the funeral of Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt). His reason for being there is to profess his undying love for the widow, Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), for whom he has carried a torch for most of his life. Horrified at his lack of decorum, she rejects him, but that doesn't dissuade Florentino. The movie then takes a break from the present to guide us through 50 years of history for these characters - showing their adolescent romance, Fermina's marriage to Juvenal, and Florentino's development into the Wilt Chamberlain of the Cholera League when it comes to the bedding of women.

Newell, freed from the restrictions of having to direct a movie for the Harry Potter age group, uses this opportunity to spice things up with copious nudity. Alas, even all those breasts and buns aren't enough to save Love in the Time of Cholera from sinking like a lead anchor. The film's tone is uneven in the extreme and it lurches from one time period to the next without bothering with transitions. Those not having read the novel are likely to find parts of the story incomprehensible. Those who have read the book, on the other hand, will likely be displeased by the direction in which the adaptation has traversed. There's no character identification. The themes of love and obsession are present, but both are trivialized. And, while there's no law that demands a serious novel cannot be made into a comedy, at least the comedy should have the decency to offer a few good laughs. That doesn't happen here.

It's hard to argue that Javier Bardem gives one of the year's standout performances, but it's in the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men. His work in Love in the Time of Cholera vies with his contribution in Goya's Ghosts for the worst acting exhibition of 2007. He's horrible. He is joined in the barely watchable category by two miscasts: Liev Schreiber as Florentino's boss and John Leguizamo as Fermina's father. Catalina Sandino Moreno brings a little energy to the proceedings with her oversexed portrayal of one of Fermina's relatives, but just as she gets interesting, she disappears for about 75 minutes. When she shows up again, she's old and fat and is only given a few token lines of dialogue. Half the time, the actors are unrecognizable because they're forced to act from under layers of old-age makeup. It doesn't look too bad from a distance but the effect is ruined every time Newell takes us in for a close-up, which he does too often. The camera reveals all, including prosthetic noses and layers of cake and putty. (Curiously, this is Schreiber's second brush with a Cholera-themed romance. He also appeared in the much better The Painted Veil.)

Due to its exposure via Oprah's book club, Love in the Time of Cholera is not an obscure work, and its many fans will be disappointed by what has happened to it on its way from the written page to the big screen. As many of the basic plot points have been crammed into the picture as the 128-minute running time will allow, but what gets lost in translation is any sense that the individuals populating the movie are more than underdeveloped marionettes dancing to a director's promptings. Newell has followed up a respectable adaptation of a Harry Potter novel with an ignominious translation of something more delicate and literate. It's hard to recommend this movie to anyone except perhaps the MST3K crew.

Love in the Time of Cholera (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 2:08
U.S. Release Date: 2007-11-16
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1