Paul Schrader hits a low water mark with "Forever Mine," a straight-faced film noir wanna-be that edges perilously close to self-parody. This glumly unimaginative rumination on transcendent love in a modern criminal context is outfitted with staggeringly routine pulp conventions that have in no way been tweaked by a normally outstanding writer.

After reaching a career high point with his last film, “Affliction,” Paul Schrader hits a low water mark with “Forever Mine,” a strenuously straight-faced film noir wanna-be that edges perilously close to self-parody. Painfully lacking in complexity, humor and a sense of genre fun, this glumly unimaginative rumination on transcendent love in a modern criminal context is outfitted with staggeringly routine pulp conventions that have in no way been tweaked, subverted or played with by a normally outstanding writer who certainly knows the territory. British-financed melodrama faces an uphill struggle theatrically, with high-end cable venues and video perhaps better situated to exploit the film’s midrange names and sex quotient.

When Schrader was a young film critic, he did pioneering scholarly work in the film noir field, and some of his screenplays have made use of genre elements that he helped identify. In this original script, he seems to want to make a sincere ’40s-style meller with all the glamorous trappings of a sultry setting, sensationally gorgeous dame, torrid nights and a betrayal-and-revenge plot. Unfortunately, so many riffs have been done in this line over the past 25 years that it requires a brilliantly original take on the material to make it fly today, and the moon-faced “Forever Mine” features anything but.

Yarn sports two story strands spanning 14 years. In the first-class section of a jet heading for New York City sits well-heeled Latino Manuel Esquema (Joseph Fiennes), the right side of his face hideously scarred, his hair dyed black and his right arm outfitted with a prosthetic hand, traveling with his bulked-up buddy Javier (Vincent Laresca).

Jump back to 1974 and Fiennes materializes as Alan Riply, a lanky, brown-haired towel boy at an ornate Florida beachside resort. When he sees a stunning blond vision arise from the sea, he knows he must have her, even though Ella (Gretchen Mol) is newly married to preoccupied businessman and nascent tough guy Mark Brice (Ray Liotta). Convincing Ella to play sick when Mark takes a brief side trip, the penniless Alan manages to seduce the young bride and, evidently, sends her over the moon, even though you’d never know it from the cool, sweat-free sex scenes.

After some extremely protracted pleading by Alan for her to leave the velvet coffin of her marriage and join him in a life of priapic poverty, Ella thinks better off it and returns to suburban New York with Mark. Before long, however, the lovesick Alan turns up in a Yonkers flophouse, where he and Ella resume their affair. Once the initial come-ons are dispensed with, the dialogue between the two is of a trance-like banality, as Alan all too earnestly describes a future that no young woman in her right mind could desire. Neither Alan nor Ella has anything going for them, making it not only hard to root for them but impossible to believe in the prospect of anything good coming of their love story.

Proving her stupidity, Ella confesses her dalliance to a suspicious Mark, who pulls strings to get Alan jailed, then to apprehend him after he escapes from a police van. Mark blasts the defenseless young man in the face and leaves him for dead at the film’s halfway point which, of course, is the big mistake that comes back to haunt him 14 years later.

During this time, Alan has reinvented himself as Esquema, a South American fixer who shows up, unrecognized, to help Mark out of a major career jam; formerly a city councilman, Mark is about to be indicted for all manner of financial malfeascence, and Esquema may have the wherewithal to get him off easy. From Esquema/Alan’s p.o.v., of course, it’s all a ploy to worm his way back into Ella’s life, which he manages to do despite his Phantom of the Opera-like disfigurement.

Not only is this hard to swallow, but given the horrible state of her marriage 14 years back, it’s difficult to accept that Ella is even still married to Mark at this point. Not having aged a day, she has persisted in a vacant, vacuous life, except that she’s now an avid reader, her current favorite being-what else? — “Madame Bovary.”

Once again, Mark learns what’s going on behind his back, this time because Esquema/Alan, in a risible scene, informs him point blank, making Ella part of Mark’s financial settlement. Needless to say, the climax is bloody, and the theoretically redemptive elements fall completely flat due to the one-dimensionality of the main characters.

In a role that’s far afield from Shakespeare, Fiennes is aggressively sincere and sadly bereft of anything resembling humor or irony. Reminding vividly of Tony Curtis in “Some Like It Hot” as he sits in his Miami Beach cabana, Liotta has trod this thug’s ground before in more convincing fashion, while Mol is physically fetching but lacking in any depth or mystery; her totally nude scenes with Fiennes are carefully lit, designed and cut for momentary titillation but no heat. Laresca is stuck with a standard criminal character who tells his buddy such things as, “Think about making money from drugs, man!”

John Bailey’s widescreen lensing has a dreamy luster that harkens back to an earlier filmmaking era, as do Francois Seguin’s production design and Marit Allen’s costumes. Angelo Badalamenti’s score tends to drone on in attempt to enliven the listlessness of most of the dialogue and action.

Forever Mine

British - U.S.

Production

A J&M Entertainment presentation of a Moonstar Entertainment production. Produced by Damita Nikapota, Kathleen Haase, Amy J. Kaufman. Executive producers, Julia Palau, Matthew Payne. Co-producer, Joe Boccia. (International sales: J&M Entertainment, London.) Directed, written by Paul Schrader

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), John Bailey; editor, Kristina Boden; music, Angelo Badalamenti; music supervisor, Robert Mackintosh; production designer, Francois Seguin; art director, Paul Austerberry; set decorator, Cal Lukes; costume designer, Marit Allen; sound (Dolby SRD), Dominick Tavella; supervising sound editor, Paul P. Soucek; assistant director, Walter Gasparovic; casting, Ellen Chenoweth, Kathleen Chopin. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 12, 1999. Running time: 115 MIN.

With

Manuel - Esquema/Alan Riply - Joseph Fiennes Mark Brice - Ray Liotta Ella Brice - Gretchen Mol Javier - Vincent Laresca
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