As if the turgid big-screen adaptation of "Beloved" weren't proof enough that filmmakers should probably steer clear of the magical-realist fiction of Nobel laureates, along comes "Love in the Time of Cholera," Mike Newell's spectacularly ill-conceived take on the 1985 novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
If you've ever read one of Marquez's novels, with their elastic time frames and grandiose flights of whimsy, you might wonder how they could possibly be translated into a two-hour movie. Newell's solution -- which is to render "Cholera" as a kind of overwrought telenovela, complete with heavy breathing and amply exposed cleavage -- proves to be a crime against both literature and cinema.
The movie introduces us to Florentino Ariza (Unax Ugalde), who as a teenager falls helplessly in love with the beautiful Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), whose father (John Leguizamo) is dead-set against his daughter marrying a peasant boy. Years later, Fermina marries the aristocratic Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt), even as the now-adult Florentino (Javier Bardem, considerably less memorable here than he is in the current "No Country for Old Men") pines obsessively for her.
This is familiar boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl stuff; and perhaps if Newell played the material straight, he might have crafted something akin to "The Notebook," a moldy but affecting and sincere tear-jerker. The problem, however, is that the director is also determined to retain Marquez's offbeat flavor, where the bawdy, the surreal and the romantic bump up against one another.
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This would be a difficult task for even the most adventurous directors, but Newell -- whose efficient, old-school style has resulted in some very good movies over the years, including the best Harry Potter movie, "The Goblet of Fire" -- doesn't have the temperament to pull it off. Most of "Love in the Time of Cholera" feels stilted and grotesque, an unfortunate mash-up of lesser Fellini and early Almodovar.
As the story putters along, Florentino becomes a playboy, sleeping with hundreds of women to mask his heartbreak over having never landed Fermina. The screenwriter, Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist"), tries to cram as many events from the novel into this movie as possible, but eventually it all just turns into a meandering blur.
As if to prove his ethnic bona fides, the British-born Newell casts even the most tiny supporting roles with familiar faces, including Laura Harring ("Mulholland Drive"), Fernanda Montenegro ("Central Station"), Hector Elizondo ("Pretty Woman") and Catalina Sandino Moreno ("Maria Full of Grace"). It's like "The Night of 100 Latin Stars" -- and it feels contrived and completely artificial.
Filmed in Cartagena, Colombia, by the talented cinematographer Affonso Beato ("The Queen," "All About My Mother"), the movie at least offers the distraction of picture-postcard images. But not two hours and 10 minutes worth of distraction. More likely, you'll find your mind drifting to another puzzling question, such as why no one in "Love of the Time of Cholera" actually contracts or dies from cholera, or why Bratt, with his Rico Suave manner and rippling pectoral muscles, looks like he just stepped off the set of a Cinemax After Dark epic.
Indeed, by the time the closing credits are rolling, this movie has turned so dreadful it's laughable.