Hackneyed, "heartfelt" comedy-drama about criss-crossed love matches set in mid-'50s rural Australia, "Love's Brother" might as well have been made in the '50s. Stifled by clammy cliches, often clumsy direction by first-time helmer Jan Sardi (screenwriter of "Shine"), pic is far too soft and inconsequential to make any commercial inroads today.

A hackneyed, “heartfelt” comedy-drama about criss-crossed love matches set in mid-’50s rural Australia, “Love’s Brother” might as well have been made in the ’50s for all the freshness and insight it brings to its story of frustrated characters afflicted by paroxysms of emotional reticence. Stifled by clammy cliches, often clumsy direction by first-time helmer Jan Sardi (screenwriter of “Shine”) and above all by the uncoalesced comic conception of Giovanni Ribisi’s central role, pic would have played well to the ladies’ matinee audience in Anglo territories 40-plus years ago, but is far too soft and inconsequential to make any commercial inroads today.

Ribisi plays Angelo Donnini, a diminutive, moon-faced fellow who waits tables at Il Cafe Latino, a tiny outpost of Italian culture for the community of emigres in a dusty Aussie town. In a cornball but nonetheless appealing early scene, the locals celebrate the long-delayed arrival of a genuine Italian espresso machine, allegedly the first on the continent, which affords them their first taste of real coffee since they left the homeland.

Fastidious in his comportment, Angelo is hopeless when it comes to women, a situation exacerbated by his younger brother Gino (Adam Garcia), a dashing, gregarious guy on the brink of engagement to the lively Connie (Silvia de Santis). As he apparently has done countless times before, Angelo writes a letter to try to induce some poor girl back in Italy to come to Australia to marry him. But having earned nothing but rejection thus far, this time Angelo includes a picture of his movie star-handsome brother.

The ploy works. By the time the beauteous Rosetta (Amelia Warner) steps off the boat, she’s already in love with the man in the photograph, but when confronted with Angelo’s ruse, the shy, unassertive girl doesn’t know what to do.

Neither does Angelo. Bashful and unimaginative himself, he can barely manage a conversational ice-breaker with the young lady he’s brought halfway around the world, much less win her over.

There are momentary suggestions in Ribisi’s tremulous, buttoned-up characterization that he and Sardi were aiming for a comic portrait in the Italian tradition of the bumbling, dimwitted, often cuckolded romantic. But as this element remains embryonic at best, what’s left is a lumpen dough of a performance that’s all too convincing in expressing an ineffectual personality and not at all revealing of something worthwhile that might be latent within him.

That Ribisi and Garcia (“Bootmen,” “Coyote Ugly”) don’t resemble one another at all is part of the point, but that the brothers, who have been Down Under for four years, sport entirely different accents — Garcia’s is more English than Aussie, Ribisi’s an unidentifiable Yank/Continental mix — makes no sense at all. Warner comes off as true Brit.

After Gino doth protest entirely too much about how utterly uninterested he is in Rosetta, reaching the predictable resolution is simply a matter of how long it will take for the characters to see the light.

Working with “The Lord of the Rings” d.p. Andrew Lesnie, Sardi evinces no coherent visual plan, simply jumping into scenes — usually in close-up — and employing indiscriminant coverage. Pic has no sense of rhythm or lived-in atmosphere.

“Shakespeare in Love” composer Stephen Warbeck tries to stir up some romantic feeling, but it’s just frosting on a cake that came out flat.

Love's Brother

Australia - U.K.

Production

A Palace Films release (in Australia and New Zealand) of a Film Finance Corp. of Australia presentation of a Jane Scott-Sarah Radclyffe co-production in association with Film Victoria. (International sales: Arclight Films, North Sydney, Australia.) Produced by Scott, Radclyffe. Executive producers, Scott, Bill Godfrey. Directed, written by Jan Sardi.

Crew

Camera (Atlab color), Andrew Lesnie; editor, Veronika Jenet; music, Stephen Warbeck; production designer, Paul Heath; art directors, Fiona Donovan, Alessandro Vannucci (Italy); set decorator, Lisa Thompson; costume designer, Anna Borghesi; sound (Dolby), Gary Wilkins; supervising sound editor, Bernard O'Reilly; assistant director, Jamie Crooks; casting, Nina Gold (U.K.), Sharon Howard Field (U.S.), Kelly O'Shea (Australia). Reviewed at Santa Barbara Film Festival, Feb. 5, 2004. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Angelo Donnini - Giovanni Ribisi Gino Donnini - Adam Garcia Rosetta - Amelia Warner Connie - Silvia de Santis Signora Carmellina - Eleanor Bron Nonna - Paola Dionisotti Pepe - John Bluthal Zia Norma - Dina Panozzo Zio Luigi - Joe Petruzzi Father Alfredo - Barry Otto
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