As counterprogramming goes, "The Love Letter" definitely offers an alternative to ticketbuyers in search of something other than Force-fed thrills and spills. But even under the best of circumstances, a beguilingly low-key pic such as this would have a hard time attracting masses to the multiplexes.

As counterprogramming goes, “The Love Letter” definitely offers an alternative to ticketbuyers in search of something other than Force-fed thrills and spills. But even under the best of circumstances — i.e., not opening within days of “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” — a beguilingly low-key pic such as this would have a hard time attracting masses to the multiplexes. Older ticketbuyers may turn out in adequate number for DreamWorks to reap a modest profit. More attention will be paid, however, after “Letter” is forwarded to homevideo and pay cable.

Set in the sort of picturesque New England hamlet where everyone knows everyone else’s business — or at least assume that they do — “Love Letter” is a gentle and generous-spirited comedy-drama with a decidedly European flavor. Kate Capshaw (who co-produced with Sarah Pillsbury and Midge Sanford) is first among equals in a strong ensemble cast as Helen MacFarquhar, a divorced bookstore owner who inadvertently upsets the routine normalcy of her mundane world.

When she finds an unsigned and extremely passionate love letter in her store, Helen is thoroughly discombobulated — and intensely curious.

Almost anyone in her orbit could have typed the missive, so just about everyone is a suspect. Is George (Tom Selleck), the local fireman who’s a longtime friend, her secret admirer? Has Janet (Ellen DeGeneres), a close buddy and faithful employee, written about a love that dares not speak its name? Or maybe Johnny (Tom Everett Scott), a 20-year-old college student who’s working for the summer at her bookstore, wants a sentimental education from the fortysomething Helen.

As Helen considers these and other possibilities, she imagines each person reading the words of the letter in a mildly amusing fantasy sequence.

But “Love Letters” is much funnier, and more affecting, when it sticks to real-world complications.

Johnny also finds the letter, assumes it is meant for him — and enthusiastically responds to misinterpreted mixed signals from Helen. Then the letter passes on to Janet, who reveals a girlishly romantic streak beneath her cynical façade when she assumes she’s being courted by the hunky George.

“Love Letter” marks the U.S. debut of Hong Kong filmmaker Peter Ho-sun Chan (“Comrades: Almost a Love Story”), who proves totally at ease with both the universality of human emotions and the specifics of small-town New England life. Working from a warm and witty screenplay by Maria Maggenti (“The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love”) based on a novel by Cathleen Schine, Chan keeps the circles within circles spinning in a brisk and captivating fashion.

It comes as no great surprise when the easygoing and self-effacing George reveals that he’s always been in love with Helen, even when each was married to someone else. What is surprising is the sweetly sympathetic performance given by Selleck in his best bigscreen outing to date.

Likewise, it’s not exactly a shock when Helen and Johnny get horizontal — and vertical — despite the difference in their ages. But their intimacy is all the more engaging because nobody makes a big deal about it. (Well, OK: Helen makes a big deal, and has serious second thoughts, but only after the fact.) In most other romantic comedies, a cross-generational romance between a young man and an older woman would be the sole focus of the plot. In “Love Letter,” however, the romance is just one element in the mosaic. As Lillian (Blythe Danner), Helen’s bemused mother, remarks: “Very French, your affair with him.”

At a pared-to-essentials 88 minutes, “Love Letter” inevitably gives short shrift to some intriguing supporting characters. As a result, the final revelation of the letter’s true author doesn’t have the satisfying resonance that it should, because the audience doesn’t learn quite enough about the bonds between writer and reader. But the well-cast actors do their considerable best to flesh out their sketchy roles.

In addition to DeGeneres and Danner, the standouts include Justine Nicholson as another summertime bookstore employee, Geraldine McEwan as a dry-witted local eccentric and Gloria Stuart (“Titanic”) as Eleanor, Helen’s presumptuous grandmother. How presumptuous? When she comes for a “short” visit, she’s accompanied by a moving van filled with furniture.

Of course, the heart of the story is the romantic triangle formed by Helen, Johnny and George. Capshaw hits all the right notes as a woman who’s fearful of making a fool of herself, but even more fearful of losing what may be her last, best chance for love. Scott does a fine job of appearing vulnerable without seeming weak, self-assured without seeming cocksure, and Selleck is extremely effective as a man who’s smart enough to realize that happiness may be forever out of reach and stubborn enough to keep grasping anyway.

Tech package is sufficient to enhance the overall mood of wistful romanticism. Of particular note are Tami Reiker’s graceful cinematography and Luis Bacalov’s understated score.

The Love Letter

Production

A DreamWorks Pictures release of a Sanford/Pillsbury production. Produced by Sarah Pillsbury, Midge Sanford, Kate Capshaw. Executive producers: Beau Flynn, Stefan Simchowitz. Directed by Peter Ho-Sun Chan. Screenplay, Maria Maggenti, based on the novel by Cathleen Schine.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Tami Reiker; editor, Jacqueline Cambas; music, Luis Bacalov; production designer, Andrew Jackness; art director, Carl Sprague; set decorator, Tracey A. Doyle; costume designer, Tracy Tynan; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), John Patrick Pritchett; assistant directors, Justin Miller, Mary Ellen Woods; casting, Mali Finn. Co-producer, unit production manager, Karen Koch. Reviewed at Cineplex Tinseltown 290 Theater, Houston, May 18, 1999. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Helen - Kate Capshaw Lillian - Blythe Danner Janet - Ellen DeGeneres Miss Scattergoods - Geraldine McEwan Jennifer - Julianne Nicholson Johnny - Tom Everett Scott George - Tom Selleck Eleanor - Gloria Stuart Officer Dan - Bill Buell Postal Clerk - Alice Drummond

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