Arie Posin’s The Face of Love is lovely to look at, albeit on the Architectural Digest layout side. It has two strong central performances. Ed Harris is flawless throughout, and Annette Bening matches him — at least when the film will allow her to. Much of the dialogue is literate and intelligent. This is the good news. The bad news is that The Face of Love not only has a fairly preposterous plot, but it’s one of those films that’s kept going only because one of the characters won’t utter the single sentence that would resolve things. It also boasts one of the most chortle-worthy plot devices — let’s call it “Chekhov’s heart condition” — in recent memory. The result is something like first-class passengers stuck on a train with only third-class accommodations. It’s entertaining, yes, and sometimes emotionally effective, but it’s very hard not to want to slap everyone involved whenever you pause to think about it.
The idea here is that Nikki (Bening) and Garrett (Harris) are a picture-book happily married couple — at least until Garrett manages to get himself drowned during their upscale Mexican vacation. Jump ahead five years to find Nikki still mourning over her late husband. Even the attentions of long-suffering shnook neighbor Roger (a slightly stalkerish Robin Williams) are to no avail. However, thanks to clever scripting she happens to see Tom, who is a dead-ringer for Garrett — possibly because he’s also played by Ed Harris. At first she reasonably dismisses this, but the idea takes root, and before you can say Vertigo, she contrives to meet him. Soon the two are keeping company, but does Nikki say a word about Tom’s resemblance to her dead husband at any point early enough to ease into the topic? Of course not, because this omission is necessary to drive the rest of the film. Unfortunately, it soon drives itself right into the realm of unintended mirth as the near-misses of discovery keep piling up.
I believe that director Posin and his co-writer Matthew McDuffie meant to convey the portrait of a woman slowly losing her grip on reality, immersed in living a fantasy that can only end badly. There is evidence to support this reading. For example, she never tells Tom that her husband died, only that he left her, and she never calls Tom by name. So, yes, she does seem to be crafting a fantasy, but the film not only doesn’t explore the idea in any depth, it becomes increasingly risible — and slightly annoying — as it goes along on the path to its melodramatic revelation scene. It’s not so bad that Nikki does things that are ever more childish in trying to keep her secret, but it’s a bit thick to have her take Tom to places where she and Garrett were known and then freak out when the staff thinks they recognize him.
What is surprising is how well all this manages to work on an emotional level. The film’s penultimate scene at an art gallery cuts right through all the nonsense and false steps — including the carefully planted and quickly ignored information about Tom’s heart problems — to become genuinely moving and real. (Unfortunately, the final scene nearly undoes all this.) It’s tempting to lay all this at the feet of Bening and Harris, and they certainly deserve most of the praise, but the screenplay and the direction have something to do with it, some of the time. Rated PG-13 for brief drug references.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas.