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Cholera’ not contagious

By Sam Potter

“Love in the Time of Cholera”New Line CinemaDirected by Mike NewellScreenplay by Ronald Harwood, adapted from the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Starring Javier Bardem, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Benjamin Bratt and John Leguizamo

Rated R/138 minutesTwo out of four stars

Love is a pain. Let’s face it. Everyone wants it. Everyone seeks it. Love gives the greatest bliss we can imagine.

It also drives us to lie, drink, cheat, murder — to the extremities of human emotion and back again. Nearly everyone in life has met that certain someone who stood out from the crowd, gave required pause, and remained ingrained in their memory for years. Most healthy people learn to let it go and move on. Then there are those who are nearly consumed by their love which remains unrequited.

Such is the main character for Mike Newell’s latest film, an adaptation of the acclaimed novel “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez. Though not the first director one would imagine adapting the book, Newell’s films seem familiar enough with the ups and downs of romance (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”) to be able to navigate the dark and raging emotional waters stirred up by Márquez’s pages. The results, however, elicit little but cold feet.

The film follows the journey of Florentino Ariza (Javier Bardem plays the older version, the younger played by Unax Ugalde) to win the heart of Fermina Daza (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), a young woman in his harbor town of Cartagena, Colombia. A poor telegram operator, Florentino succeeds in winning the heart of the young girl but doesn’t convince her greedy father (overplayed to the hilt by John Leguizamo), who believes his daughter is far too pretty for poverty. When Fermina is smitten with what her father believes is cholera, the handsome Dr. Urbino (Benjamin Bratt) comes calling. After diagnosing Fermina with nothing more than an intestinal infection, he is smitten with her and soon convinces her to marry him.

Plagued with the loss of his love, Florentino embarks on a journey of illicit sex, empty relationships and aimless travel in an attempt to heal his broken heart. He keeps a diary of the women he sleeps with, and in between, he writes of his determination to eventually win back Fermina’s affections.

Despite the best of intentions and strong efforts made on the part of all parties involved, Newell’s film seems off before the first reel is over. Bardem’s performance seems competent and passionate, but he’s done better work. He convincingly captures Florentino’s ache and childish crumbling, yet Florentino is a supremely annoying character. Despite relationships with more than 600 women over 50 years, he just can’t let go. Mezzogiorno matches him as Fermina, with a chilling subservience and refreshing emotional honesty. The weaker performances in the film include the uber-villainous John Leguizamo as Florentino’s blood-sucking father. I actually felt bad for Leguizamo. He seemed to be trying so hard, yet his performance felt more cartoonish and hilarious than any stand-up performance he’s done.

Newell fails to strike the right balance in the film’s tone. The moments of drama between Bardem, Mezzogiorno and Bratt hit home, but they are severely undermined by scenes of ridiculous whimsy and near slapstick. In one scene we see Florentino’s disappointment at losing a poetry contest, only to have him make rampant and random love to a woman he met at the contest. Florentino seems to seduce effortlessly, but we get very little of what makes this guy so appealing in the first place.

Also incredibly apparent is the rushed pacing and lack of finer details in character development. For example, Fermina dislikes Urbino. We never get a scene before their marriage as to her actually conceding to the arrangement or even being somewhat pleased by the idea. Then, suddenly, she’s married to him. Large transitions in time such as this without important character details make the characters seem a bit flat and dispassionate, particularly Fermina. The awkward interspersion of goofy comedy with a story of such ache, despair and longing saps the gravitas from the drama.

And why is this film in English? It seems so awkward for an entire Latino cast to be performing a film set entirely in a Spanish-speaking country in their non-native language. It makes the random bits of actual Spanish that are spoken seem even more strange, whereas they should seem natural.

I can’t help but say it, but “Cholera” should best be avoided…maybe not like the plague, but something equally unpleasant.

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