Tale of a high-schooler's ill-advised romantic entanglements with an older married couple is such a fantastic failure on almost every level one marvels at how slowly 83 minutes can pass. The presence of homoerotic undercurrents in the material may give pic some currency on the gay fest circuit. Others need not apply.

Tale of a high-schooler’s ill-advised romantic entanglements with an older married couple is such a fantastic failure on almost every level one marvels at how slowly 83 minutes can pass. Though it lacks the overt gay theme of writer-director Alan Brown’s short film, “O Beautiful,” which played at Sundance in 2003, the presence of homoerotic undercurrents in the material may give pic some currency on the gay fest circuit. Others need not apply.

Brown, whose background is as a playwright, burdens “Book of Love” with self-consciously theatrical contrivances. Pic is set in an idealized New Jersey suburb that might have been the setting for a Thornton Wilder play: The white-picket fences, shady oaks and corner ice-cream parlors are there only so Brown can show us their dark underbelly. Likewise, characters exist only to the extent that they titillate and/or antagonize one another; they have no inner lives.

So it is that, in one of those ice-cream parlors, 15-year-old student Chet (Gregory Smith, who’s 20 in real life, and looks it) has his fateful meet-cute with 28-year-old event-planner Elaine (Frances O’Connor, who’s close to 40) and her history-teacher husband, David (Simon Baker). It’s a warm summer afternoon, and Elaine asks Chet why he’s wearing an uncomfortable-looking sweatshirt. At which point, he proceeds to take it off, causing the T-shirt he wears underneath to ride up a bit, momentarily exposing his bare midriff. Time seems to stop for Elaine, whose stare is more than a bit too longing.

Pic dragsthings out, staging preposterous scenes in which Chet socializes with the childless couple. It’sforeplay, natch for Chet and Elaine’s inevitable consummation. (Perhapsto keep things balanced, David, too,gets to contend with an amorous student, played by Bryce Dallas Howard.)

Picfalls back on these devicesin an effort to disguise itsinability to portray a contemporary marriage in believable or original terms. In what may be pic’s least digestible plot turn, David, having learned of Elaine’s infidelity, extends a proverbial olive branch to Chet, proposing the three of them hit the road together for a trip to Disney World. And they do!

Though Brown has refreshingly cast O’Connor against type in a part that allows her to show her (considerable) sensual side, he builds no sexual chemistry between her and Baker or, for that matter, her and Smith. When it comes to staging and shooting the film’s heterosexual sex scenes, Brown’s results range from the perfunctory to the unintentionally hilarious. Yet, all the while, pic seems to turn itself on by leering over its two male leads, who Brown compulsively undresses.

Shot in 16mm, pic was presented digitally for its Sundance world premiere, and suffered from a murky, washed-out look suggestive of a bad video transfer.

Book of Love

Production

A Robert Ahrens production. Produced by Robert Ahrens. Executive producer, Mickey Liddell. Directed, written by Alan Brown.

Crew

Camera (color, Super 16mm), William Rexer II; editor, Trevor Ristow; music, Stewart Wallace; production designer, Kelly McGehee; costume designer, Marie Abma; sound, Damian Canelos; assistant director, Michael A. Moffa; casting, Ellen Parks. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 21, 2004. Running time: 83 MIN.

With

Elaine Walker - Frances O'Connor David Walker - Simon Baker Chet Becker - Gregory Smith Heather - Bryce Dallas Howard Melissa - Joanna P. Adler Lilian - Sabrina Grdevich Naomi - Ari Graynor Yoga Instructor - Beth MacDonald Coach - Brett Tabor Swimmer #1 - Van Hughes Swimmer #2 - CJ Aker

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