For your Heath Ledger holiday-movie options, you have the following: a) a cowboy in love with another man; and b) history's most infamous womanizer. Since the name Casanova is synonymous with an unquenchable thirst for straight sex with women (or at least boasting about it), the role might seem to be a strategic selection for a guy concerned about being perceived as gay. But whether you find cause for suspicion in the fact Casanova is landing in theaters within mere days of Brokeback Mountain's release, it might still be worth your time. It's a sweet, silly and not unintelligent romantic comedy: For a period farce, you could do worse.
Italy's 18th-century woman-slayer is portrayed by Ledger as a good-natured hottie who can't help but avail himself of the pleasures of the female flesh. Sienna Miller plays Francesca Bruni, a bookish firecracker who strains against the limitations imposed on women of her day and promotes the work of a feminist philosopher. Of course, once Casanova catches sight of the single woman who won't have him, he's smitten, politics be damned.
The role may come naturally to Miller, who has already fallen in love with a charming blond whose mere glances inspire women to remove their clothing -- in Alfie and in real life. Now she's back at it, and we can only imagine the discomfort on the set as even the Venetian extras strained to withhold their Jude Law jokes. One wonders if her performance, one of the least interesting in the film, was not tainted by the bitter well of experience; then again, the problem could be the role itself, for which the writing is less than inspired.
Anyway, the plot. To avoid prosecution as a libertine, Casanova must marry within three days. (Yeah, just go with it.) He finds a willing virgin and becomes engaged but, in the process, ends up in a duel with a competitor for her hand. His opponent, agile with a sword, is unmasked as a woman -- the same one he witnessed a few days earlier, making an impassioned speech for female rights. It is, of course, Francesca Bruni, standing in to save the hide of her nonathletic brother. In the parlance of this familiar narrative, Casanova has met his match, and the chase is on.
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The obstacles: Casanova is engaged and so is Bruni, it turns out, in an arrangement finagled by her departed father to rescue the family from debt. Also, she doesn't like Casanova. Even before she learns his true identity (he pretends to be quite a few other people), Bruni isn't swayed by Casanova's protestations of attraction, which are based -- as always -- on little more than lust. She's the kind of woman who requires a man to earn her love.
None of this is particularly interesting. What makes the film fun is everything else -- namely, a series of enjoyably convoluted twists and turns that introduce and employ hilarious characters. Jeremy Irons is delicious as a priggish and bumbling bishop swathed in "papal purple" and wearing a wig that marries the mullet to a row of hedges. Oliver Platt is even better as Bruni's fiancé, Papprizzio, a lard merchant from Genoa who arrives in Venice on a barge of fat. Pratt plays Papprizzio as huge, adorable and sympathetic, desperate to be liked by Bruni, whom he has never met. Screenwriters Jeffrey Hatcher and Kimberly Simi were smart to make Papprizzio such a love; had he been a boor, uninterested in Bruni's opinion of him, it wouldn't have been half as funny.
In fact, director Lasse Hallström (The Shipping News, Chocolat) gets away with pretty much everything by employing a brand of simplistic feminism to which no one can object. That's the only way to make a sexpot protagonist palatable to viewers of period pieces (in a word: women), and it basically works. As in many romantic comedies, the love between the two principals isn't given much time to develop, and it's never entirely believable. But the script is so busy contriving farcical scenes of mistaken identity, slapstick and general buffoonery that it hardly matters. One minute we're at a ball where pigs are being led on leashes, Casanova's two fiancées are competing (unknowingly) for his time, and the parents of both are scheming to bring their children into line; then we're in a hot-air balloon, sailing over Venice against a backdrop that's obviously been fabricated. The point is not to learn but to laugh.
The last 20 minutes of Casanova are ridiculous, with a succession of genre conventions that don't mean much, but it nevertheless maintains its sense of humor. It's hard to fault a movie that seems to be having such a good time, especially when it springs from a deft script. You'll likely leave the theater in a humming mood.