In 1967, Feast of Love director Robert Benton got his first screen credit as co-writer of Bonnie and Clyde. He appears to have calmed down quite a bit since then.
Make no mistake, Benton has done a lot of fine film work behind the camera. Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart, Nobody’s Fool – Benton has become that rare director who guides memorable, even Oscar-winning performances without leaning on crutches like drug freak-outs, histrionic speeches or celebrity imitations. His are low-key dramas about low-key people. In a cinematic world where everyone seems to be shouting at you, Benton prefers the volume knob turned down.
At times, that kind of restraint can be a wonderful thing. As it turns out, it’s also why Benton wasn’t a particularly good choice to adapt Charles Baxter’s novel The Feast of Love. An interwoven collection of first-person reminiscences, Baxter’s book placed itself squarely inside the heads of people trying to make sense of irrational passions, or dealing with the pain of having the people they love reject them. Benton provides a calm and tidy interpretation of something that is fundamentally urgent and messy.
The characters in Benton’s Feast of Love orbit around a Portland-area coffee shop owned by Bradley Smith (Greg Kinnear). Philosophy professor Harry Stevenson (Morgan Freeman) putters around on a leave of absence from his university job, recovering from a family tragedy. Bradley’s young employee Oscar (Toby Hemingway) and a new hire named Chloe (Alexa Davalos) fall hard for each other and begin making life plans. Bradley himself faces a completely unexpected threat to his marriage to Kathryn (Selma Blair), and a customer named Diana (Radha Mitchell) faces a choice between her affair with a married man named David (Billy Burke) and a more traditional domestic life that may lack true love.
Because Benton is such a gifted director of actors, Feast of Love isn’t lacking for some individually affecting performances and moments. Davalos exudes a confident life energy that strikes a nice balance off of Freeman’s weary dignity, while Kinnear provides a solid center as a gently oblivious nice guy who doesn’t quite understand his own relationship failures. The finest work comes from Mitchell, who captures the uncertainty in a successful woman trying to convince herself that she can be happy in a relationship without ferocious attraction.
But in general, ferocious attraction is sadly lacking in Feast of Love. Benton and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau give the film the slick, respectable look of Oscar bait, observing as the characters circle and connect with one another. They hang in tight close-ups on people exchanging profound thoughts about love and God. They fade out slooooooowly from one scene, and fade in sloooooooowly to the next. Even the music suggests much more yearning romanticism than the intense ache of desire. “We have to love each other as hard as we can right now,” insists Harry’s wife Esther (Jane Alexander), but there’s little evidence here of people loving each other more than … nicely.
What’s missing from most of Feast of Love becomes even clearer in one of the few scenes where uncontrolled feeling dominates. Sharing a post-coital glass of wine, Diana and David begin to argue over Diana’s comment that she has accepted another man’s marriage proposal. Completely nude, the two lovers ultimately stand toe to toe, exchanging insults and slaps that say what they’re unable to express in words – that they long to be together, but don’t believe they can. There’s an awkward, unsettling immediacy to the scene – not just because the characters are physically naked, but because Benton and screenwriter Allison Burnett are exposing something naked in the emotions as well.
Yet for all the skin on display in Feast of Love – and there’s plenty of it – Benton too rarely gets under that skin. Interesting though the individual stories are in bits and pieces, they remain at a safe, respectable remove. The title of Baxter’s book comes from a painting created by amateur artist Bradley, an interpretation of a table spilling over with fruit that leaves everyone who sees it dumbstruck. That painting is notably absent from the film, as is the idea it represents. The sticky, tactile, full-sensory experience of love only sporadically bubbles to the surface of Feast of Love. Robert Benton simply watches quietly as love happens, and keeps his hands clean.