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The Love Letter is a sunny romance with roots in an earlier era

The Love Letter has the dubious distinction of being the other studio film to open this week. In a week when all the other majors have run for cover, Dreamworks has taken a gamble with a classic bit of counterprogramming: In nearly every way, this sweet romance/romantic comedy is the opposite of that other film now dominating the plexes. Modest in size and scope, relentlessly down-to-earth and nicely nuanced, it hasn't a single obvious process shot or computer-generated effect; the soundtrack may be Dolby Digital/ DTS/SDDS, but nobody would likely notice if it weren't. And nobody is likely to devote his or her life to it or build a quasi-religion around it. To all of which I say, "Hurrah!"

Because, when all is said and done, The Love Letter is certainly a more interesting experience and, depending on your taste, a more pleasurable one than Episode I: The Phantom Menace. An opening montage deftly introduces us to Loblolly by the Sea, a small New England village where everybody knows everybody as well as everybody's business. Helen MacFarquhar (Kate Capshaw), the town's most eligible divorcee, runs the local bookstore, a surprisingly large enterprise (three full-time employees!). Her manager, Janet (Ellen DeGeneres), who is also her best friend, seems to have a hyperactive social life; her two summer helpers, Jennifer (Juliane Nicholson) and Johnny (Tom Everett Scott), seem destined for a romance.

In short, everyone has romantic possibilities cooking except for Helen, in large part because of her own emotional withdrawal. She seems blind to the obvious devotion of George (Tom Selleck), the town fireman, who is in the final stages of a divorce and has been courting Helen on and off since high school. Even the least likely minor characters -- aging eccentric Constance Scattergoods (Geraldine McEwan) and town cop Officer Dan (Bill Buell) -- are more open to love than Helen.

But one day, while sorting mail at the bookstore, Helen discovers a letter jammed between the cushions of her ancient sofa -- a passionate, beautifully written love letter. The language of the letter has an almost magical effect on her. She decides, against all logic, that the letter, addressed only to "Dearest," is intended for her. She becomes understandably obsessed with finding out who wrote it.

Along the way, however, the letter passes through the hands of nearly all the film's major characters, with a wide variety of effects. Most assume it's for them; others crib from it; eventually, one or two even know who wrote it to whom. But for all of them it's a catalyst, leading to good romance, bad romance, frustration, inspiration, revelation or disappointment.

The Love Letter may sound like Message in a Bottle 2, but it's not. In many ways, it's more like the reverse side of Henri-Georges Cluozot's 1943 The Raven (and Otto Preminger's remake, The 13th Letter), in which anonymous letters serve as a crowbar to pry open the protective secrecy that cloaks a town's ugly secrets.

While The Raven was relentlessly grim, however, The Love Letter is primarily sunny. Its director is Peter Ho-Sun Chan, making his American debut after a string of commercial and critical hits in Hong Kong. Chan made a small splash with his second directorial effort, Tom, Dick and Hairy (1993), a sweet comedy about the sexual and romantic adventures of three vastly different roommates; within the next three years, he directed another six features, including the hugely successful sex farce He's a Woman, She's a Man (1994) and culminating with the critically acclaimed drama Comrades, Almost a Love Story (1996), which swept the Hong Kong film awards.

Chan was a wise choice for The Love Letter: The material could easily have turned sloppily sentimental or cutely coy. But even Chan's broader films have always managed to present a balanced view of their characters; The Love Letter is no exception.

Helen may be the focus of our sympathy, but she's also capable of horrendous behavior, as the other characters frequently point out. George at first appears to be a good-natured bore; the gradual revelation of his full nature is one of the film's most appealing developments. Even Helen's mother (Blythe Danner), introduced as the horror of Helen's life, eventually grows sympathetic.

Chan's affection for his characters (even while acknowledging their less positive traits), his refusal to condescend to even the goofiest or most irritating of them, is at the heart of The Love Letter's success. It's an attitude that Hollywood films used to have on a regular basis, an attitude that seems largely to have disappeared.

The Love Letter.
Rated PG-13.
Directed by Peter Ho-Sun Chan. With Kate Capshaw, Tom Everett Scott, Tom Selleck, Ellen DeGeneres and Blythe Danner.

 
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