Lasse Hallstrom’s sweet, unassuming My Life as a Dog puts the audience in a time and place that is so warm and inviting, you don’t want to leave it. That is probably the greatest accomplishment of Hallstrom’s ode to childhood innocence. Hallstrom’s breakthrough Swedish movie, which resulted in two Oscar nominations for the filmmaker (Best Director, Best Original Screenplay), perfectly encapsulates the fears, heartaches, tragedies, and triumphs of childhood. Backed up by some amazing child performances and a cast that feels as real as the small town in any country in the world, the film has a winning charm that’s hard to ignore.
I’ve got a large pile of unseen movies that I’ve got stacked up somewhere and I like to pull a random one out every so often. So the other day, I reached into the pile and I pulled out…Casanova? Honestly, when I pulled this out, I had a hard time remembering what this was but looking it up online I vaguely remember this coming out back in 2005. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom, the film stars Heath Ledger as the fabled seducer of women Casanova and tells the tale of his falling in love with a Venetian woman played by Sienna Miller. And over the course of the movie, both characters run at odds against the Catholic Church.
Casanova is a sometimes funny but more often cheesy period romantic comedy that never really takes off. Led by a charming lead performance by Heath Ledger and a fantastic comedic performance from Oliver Platt, the film otherwise falls flat on its face with some insipid gags and poor effects and set design, basically devolving into an episode of Three’s Company.
The entire movie reeks of a kind of low rent production which is surprising considering the talent involved. It’s painfully obvious when actors are acting in front of green screens and the streets of Venice are painfully shot as if on a studio back lot. It all takes away from a story that by itself is an incredibly simplistic love story but goes through the motions of a really bad sitcom set in 18th century Venice.
The entire plot hinges on mistaken identities and playing both sides to the other but I never got a sense of why any of this was happening in the first place. As per usual with these kind of relationship head games in movies, I never get what the motive of lying in the first place really is and how long Casanova expects the con to continue.
It’s the kind of situational comedy that’s was becoming tiresome even back Shakespeare’s day. It’s a romantic comedy standby but there’s nothing genuine about it. It’s all about falling in love and all the superficial BS that goes along with the idea of love. Sienna Miller’s Francesca character is supposed to be a feminist philosopher type but none of the philosophizing is anything beyond simple overplayed gender politics. It all becomes white noise and the movie never rises above that.
At the end of the movie, even the spurned lovers find true love with somebody else and you can see it all coming a mile away. There’s somebody for everyone, the movie seems to say. Love is everywhere and blah blah blah. It’s the kind of idealistic romanticism that you can only find at the movies. And not very good ones at that.
Another problem with the movie besides all that is there doesn’t seem to be any reason for one character to fall in love with the other, only because the script says so. You can see why Ledger’s Casanova would fall for the feisty, strong willed Francesca as played by Miller but never why the other way around. They are constantly at odds and their ideas on love and seduction are constantly against each other. Of course, towards the end, there’s one selfless act that pushes her into falling in love with him but beyond that, there’s not really much more to it.
And of course, there’s the running subplot of the Catholic Church’s Inquisition and they’re hunt for Ledger’s Casanova and the author of some feminist literature written by Miller’s character, both being seen as enemies of the Church. This will probably be the most lighthearted romantic comedy that also has the lead characters coming close to being hung at the climax of the movie. Jeremy Irons plays Pucci, one of the Vatican’s most feared Inquisitors and he ruthlessly goes after Casanova and Francesca. He also happens to get some of the sharpest lines of dialogue in the film as the film seems to have no love for the Catholic Church. Most of Jeremy Irons lines drip with a disdain for the Church in their hypocrisies and arrogances, that it would make even an atheist uncomfortable, after having a good laugh of course.
Although, that’s part of the problem with the film. Much of the humor rings as too modern and feels out of place in its 18th century setting. At one point, Lena Olin, who plays Francesca’s mother, has a line about this being the last time she rides coach as she rides a horse driven coach, and I found myself squirming at the joke. And the fact that they had such a great actress such as Olin deliver something so stilted and corny, I almost turned off the movie and walked off right there. And these lines and gags keep popping up throughout the film and they rarely work.
The one comedic bright spot when it comes to these gags in the movie is Oliver Platt’s Paprizzio, a lard manufacturer who becomes engaged to Francesca. He seems to be one of the few people having fun in the movie playing an insecure, blob of a man. Platt gets some great lines with a fun character.
Heath as Casanova is also fun to watch. He plays the character with such great charm and makes the some of his modern jokes work when they otherwise shouldn’t. It’s unfortunate that the rest of the movie from script to set design to direction seem to fail him so often throughout as he seems to be stuck in a worse movie than his character deserves.
From the falling air balloon gag to the constant pig jokes, this is a film that’s not surprising to find on basic cable. What is surprising is that it comes from such a talented group of people in front of and behind the camera. Hallstrom’s never exactly been a favorite filmmaker but he’s certainly more talented than what this film shows. Simplistic themes and waxing philosophical on love, it all becomes tiresome by the end when everyone lives happily ever after. A couple of good performances and some sly ribbing of the Catholic Church, unfortunately, cannot save this mess of romantic comedy clichés dressed up in period clothing.