Living up to its grandiose title, "Feast of Love" is a cinematic essay on the infinite varieties of amour -- from the reckless ardor of youth to the cooler, more compromised emotional landscape of marriage.

Living up to its grandiose title, “Feast of Love” is a cinematic essay on the infinite varieties of amour — from the reckless ardor of youth to the cooler, more compromised emotional landscape of marriage. Septuagenarian director Robert Benton brings his characteristically fine touch with actors and appreciation for the female form to this tastefully erotic ensembler, but compassion finally outstrips insight in a drama as soft-headed as it is soft-hearted. A strong cast topped by Morgan Freeman probably won’t keep “Love” from remaining mostly unrequited in theaters, though it may attract older audiences on homevid.

In his 2001 novel, a sort of modern-day gloss on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Charles Baxter positioned himself within the narrative framework as a collector of love stories from people young and old. In addition to shifting the action from Michigan to Oregon, scribe Allison Burnett has handed Baxter’s omniscient point of view to Freeman’s character, who becomes the film’s glue as well as its requisite aging voice of wisdom.

University professor Harry Stevenson (Freeman), is a regular at a coffee shop run by his good-natured friend, Bradley Smith (Greg Kinnear). Only Harry notices when Bradley’s wife Kathryn (a flinty Selma Blair), sullen and unhappy despite Bradley’s perpetually upbeat view of their life together, shows signs of attraction to another woman, Jenny (Stana Katic).

A thoughtless act on Bradley’s part crystallizes the reality that he’s more in love with the idea of love than with Kathryn, and sends the latter into Jenny’s arms for good. Thus Blair, easily the film’s thorniest, most fascinating presence, storms out of the picture much too early, though not before the camera has lingered on her and Katic in a sweaty post-coital haze.

Desperately eager for love, Bradley soon sets his sights on blonde goddess Diana (Radha Mitchell), a realtor who coaxes him into buying a house they eventually share. Diana, however, also remains embroiled in an affair with a handsome but cynical married man, David (Billy Burke).

Script devotes much time to the sweet romance of two teen baristas at Bradley’s coffee shop, Chloe (Alexa Davalos) and Oscar (Toby Hemingway). Representing love in its steadfast, mature stages are Harry and his wife Esther (Jane Alexander).

Given the potentially unwieldy nature of the enterprise, Benton juggles the multiple narratives with considerable grace, and succeeds in creating a warm (if somewhat improbable) sense of community among the principal characters. The director remains one of an aging Hollywood breed of old-fashioned classicists, who continue to place faith in carefully sculpted, dialogue-driven scenes, filmed with a largely static camera (a sudden handheld jolt during an emotionally heightened scene is immediately noticeable).

In the film’s poetic, bittersweet musings (delivered in Freeman’s ever-authoritative voiceover), one can hear Benton repeatedly clearing his throat to make a grand, definitive statement about love and its ability to make tragicomic fools of us all.

But for better and often for worse, “Feast of Love” is unmistakably the work of an older filmmaker, and too often its philosophizing has a musty, let-me-tell-you-how-it-is tone that would be easier to take if Benton and scripter Burnett offered a tougher, more realistic view of their characters.

Pic initially mocks Bradley’s eager romanticism (played with endearing shagginess by Kinnear) but ends up indulging it, while Diana and David are arguably let off the hook too easily for their mutual infidelity — a perception borne out by Mitchell and Burke, neither of whom seem interested in making their characters particularly sympathetic.

And Chloe’s visit with a psychic initiates some creaky tragic foreshadowing that only viewers inclined toward fuzzy-headed mysticism will be able to swallow.

That leaves the copious nudity as the film’s most interesting talking point, with Mitchell and Davalos receiving generous photographic attention; from “Kramer vs. Kramer” to his previous film, “The Human Stain,” filming attractive ladies in the buff has become something of a hallmark of Benton’s work. Given the context, at least it can’t be called gratuitous.

The soundtrack shoulders much of the dramatic weight: Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” provides lovely background in a tenderly played scene between Davalos and Hemingway, but the Frames’ “Falling Slowly,” heard to such glorious effect in this year’s “Once,” falls flat in a poorly edited lovemaking montage.

Shot in Portland, Ore., the pic takes excellent advantage of the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

Feast of Love

Production

An MGM release of a Lakeshore Entertainment production, in association with Greene Street Films, Revelations Entertainment. Produced by Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi, Richard S. Wright. Executive producers, David Scott Rubin, Eric Reid, Harley Tannebaum, Lori McCreary, Fisher Stevens, John Penotti. Directed by Robert Benton. Screenplay, Allison Burnett, based on the novel by Charles Baxter.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Kramer Morgenthau; editor, Andrew Mondshein; music, Stephenen Trask; production designer, Missy Stewart; art director, John Chichester; set decorator, Kathy Lucas; costume designer, Renee Ehrlich Kalfus; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Steve Morrow; supervising sound editors, Michael Kirchberger, Roy Waldspurger; re-recording mixers, Michael Barry, Waldspurger; visual effects supervisor, Thomas Tannenberg; visual effects, Gradient Effects; stunt coordinator, Tim Trella; associate producers, Marisa Forzano, Ted Gridlow; assistant director, Cara Giallanza; casting, Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood. Reviewed at Aidikoff screening room, Beverly Hills, Aug. 9, 2007. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Harry Stevenson - Morgan Freeman Bradley Smith - Greg Kinnear Diana - Radha Mitchell David Watson - Billy Burke Kathryn - Selma Blair Chloe - Alexa Davalos Oscar - Toby Hemingway Jenny - Stana Katic Esther - Jane Alexander Bat - Fred Ward

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