The last thing any movie as dramatically inert and overlong as Mike Newell’s Love in the Time of Cholera needed was a scene late in the proceedings where its hero, Florentino Ariza (Javier Bardem), is having a hard time keeping his eyes open while watching a film. But sure enough, it has just such a scene—and I knew exactly how the poor schlepp felt.
I’ve never read the film’s source novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but it has to be better than this good-looking stiff of a movie. The novel may not lend itself to adaptation—as has been suggested in some reviews—but that’s insufficient excuse for everything that’s wrong with its cinematic incarnation.
The central premise is a little on the wobbly side as approached by the film. Essentially, it’s the story of Florentino Ariza, a young man whose one great love, Fermina Daza (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), marries another man, Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt), partly at the urging of her upwardly mobile father (John Leguizamo). Instead of moving on with his life, he remains fixedly in love with the woman and waits for her husband to die—occupying himself with 600-plus insubstantial sexual conquests while awaiting this happy day.
It’s a story that might work in old-fashioned soap-opera terms if played with a very straight face. However, in this case, it’s obviously meant to be played—in part—in terms of ironic absurdity. The problem is that the film wants to have it both ways, and it can’t pull it off. The characters are never sufficiently formed to be both likable and absurd at the same time—and ultimately they’re really neither. The film constantly wants the viewer to take too much on faith. We are presented with a great love because the film says it is. Florentino is utterly besotted over Fermina because it says so. Firmina decides that their youthful love was only an illusion because the script tells her to. And so on.
There’s never any attempt to address the fact that Florentino occasionally comes across as a borderline stalker. In general, there’s not much attempt at characterization of any kind, which is pretty odd in a movie that moves at such a leisurely pace. Strangely, the subordinate characters—especially Hector Elizondo’s Don Leo—fare a little better. On the other hand, John Leguizamo as Firmina’s socially ambitious father, Lorenzo, is quite the worst thing in the film. It’s an embarrassingly melodramatic role embarassingly played by Leguizamo with the kind of restraint one might expect from someone playing Simon Legree in a touring company of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Granted, this offers the upside of being pretty funny, but that was hardly the intention.
However, it is worth noting that the film’s final section is a bold—and often successful—depiction of an unusually real romance between two people in their 70s, something the movies have rarely, if ever, undertaken—and never with this degree of sexual frankness. It takes nigh on to forever to get to this point, but it’s the one part of the film that feels real and honest. It’s also the one part of the film that’s worth your attention. Whether it’s worth the journey of the entire film is another question—one I’m disinclined to answer positively. Rated R for sexual content/nudity and brief language.