LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA sweeps across the big screen like a stifled yawn. Adapted from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s poetic novel by Ronald Harwood and directed by Mike Newell, the grand passion that dominates the life of its hero, Florentino (Javier Bardem), fails to rise to the occasion. Rather than the stuff of great romance, it is rendered here as a less than healthy life-long obsession by a sensitive boy that doesn’t diminish even when its object, Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) reveals herself early on as a flighty and inconstant woman whose motives are as mysterious as they are uninteresting.
With a shaky premise, there isn’t much to hold this film together, especially when the adaptation is episodic. Characters flit by. Some, like Liev Schreiber’s lusty telegraph owner, in two or three scenes before disappearing altogether, others, played at so many different ages and with so little introduction as to who they are exactly, that they blend into an oddly homogenous passing parade in whom it is difficult, if not impossible to invest much. This is a bare-boned narrative that begins towards the end and then works its way back to a conclusion that redefines anti-climactic.
Young Florentino (Unax Ugalde) delivers a telegram to the house of Fermina’s father (John Leguizamo) and catches a glimpse of the love of his life for the first time. Smitten, he sits up all night writing her a love letter. A clandestine correspondence begins culminating in a proposal worthy of Romeo and Juliet. This leads to a showdown with her father that is never quite sure whether it’s supposed to be funny or terrifying. The lovers are separated as Fermina is shipped to the wilderness for a year, while Florentino, at the end of said year, is suddenly Bardem, and the transition from tender youth to rugged 30s in that space of time is jarring to say the least. Still more jarring is Fermina’s curt dismissal of her former paramour, and disdainful acceptance of courtship by the town doctor (Benjamin Bratt), much to her father’s delight.
Florentino vows to remain pure for his Fermina, but after being pressed into reluctant carnal service by one of a trio of mysterious women on a slow boat out of Cartagena, he does what any heartbroken young man would do. He drowns his sorrows in literally hundreds of other women. The results are a tedious and predictable litany as Florentino does nothing but await for the next female stumble across his path. Still, he pines for Fermina, on whom he spies from a distance, keeping his wounded heart bleeding as he waits for her husband to die.
Bardem alone channels the tragic-comic sensibility, with his large wounded eyes that nonetheless have a wicked glint in them. Ugalde smolders with the rapture and awkwardness of first love. That they are forced to evoke Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, right down to the bowler hat and slightly ill-filling suits, undermines whatever headway they were making, though, as both seem too uncomfortable with the persona. Everyone else seems to be in a completely different film. Fernanda Montenegro as Florentino’s addled mother is wonderfully passionate, in stark contrast to Mezzogiorno, who spends most of the film looking distracted. Bratt is stiff and unengaging, while Leguizamo leaps off the screen like so much fulminating mercury.
LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA is a big sprawling mess. Sensuality becomes a punch line, and not a very funny one. Time passes, slowly, characters age uncertainly, and whatever magical point was made by the novel is completely lost here.