Hollywood cranks out so many breezy romantic comedies each year, but I’ve noticed a growing fatigue with the formulaic rom-coms of the last 15 years or so that has almost become a kind of backlash. I count myself among those who are fed up with the predictable, but there have been some lovely romantic stories that offer some freshness with their familiarity. One of those movies is a little-seen gem from 1999 called “The Love Letter” from director Peter Chan.
There isn’t much of substance here, and the heroine is not very interesting (mainly due to poor character development) or likable (unnecessary but advisable in a rom-com). And yet, the wistful allure of unrequited and unfulfilled love casts a spell along with the location and some of the more endearing characters. It also holds some nice surprises, and if you allow yourself to fall into it, its various charms might win you over. It's a lighthearted, fun journey.
The setup: A summer in New England – the quaint little town of Loblolly by the Sea – and love is in the air. A beguiling love letter has emerged in a bookstore and stirs up trouble for several people who think it is meant for them.
Helen (Kate Capshaw) – Helen owns the bookstore where she finds the love letter among some mail. It was not in an envelope – just folded and mixed in with the other letters she’s sorting – and it is typewritten with no names identifying the receiver or the writer. She assumes it is for her, but she can’t figure out who left it for her to find. She begins to suspect Johnny, a young college kid she hired to help out at the bookstore.
George (Tom Selleck) – George is a firefighter, and he and Helen went out together a few times in high school – outings she refuses to classify as dates. George has carried a torch for her since then even though they both married other people. Helen and her husband are now divorced, and George and his wife are getting a divorce, which is why he recently returned to Loblolly from New York. He and Helen have begun their flirtation anew, but it is a modest one because they’re both still too afraid to put themselves out there.
Johnny (Tom Everett Scott) – The aforementioned college kid working in Helen’s bookstore for the summer. Helen invites him to dinner to apologize for yelling at him at work. While at Helen’s house, he sees the letter on a side table and instead of thinking it must be her letter from someone else, he assumes she wrote it to him and left it for him to find. (Illogical, I know, but it’s a movie.) So he proceeds to seduce her, and although she’s willing to engage in an affair, she is not willing to encourage him or be seen with him in public.
Janet (Ellen DeGeneres) – Helen’s best friend who appears to be the manager or co-manager of the bookstore, Janet adds real comedy to the proceedings. She is good-natured and engages in witty banter with everyone she meets. Like Helen, she discovers the letter in the bookstore (after Helen), and like nearly everyone else who finds it, she assumes it is meant for her.
Jennifer (Julianne Nicholson) – Jennifer is working on her doctoral dissertation in women’s studies soaking up all she can from Helen’s “good bitch/bad bitch” persona. She gossips often, speculates wildly, never brings Janet the right coffee in the mornings, and develops a severe crush on Johnny when he foolishly kisses her to try to make Helen jealous.
Miss Scattergoods (Geraldine McEwan) – Constance Scattergoods is an endearing, chain-smoking, 60-something-year-old woman who befriends Johnny and commiserates with him because they both are pining away for “people they shouldn’t be in love with.”
Lillian (Blythe Danner) – Helen’s mother has spent an inordinate amount of time traveling, which Helen takes personally. When Lillian arrives in Loblolly for a visit, with her mother, played by Gloria Stuart, in tow, Helen hopes Lillian will stay a while and guide her through the minefield of how to get out of an affair with a younger man.
Eleanor/Grandma (Gloria Stuart) – “Grandma” is a charming old woman who still loves to be mischievous.
Officer Dan (Bill Buell) – Officer Dan finds the letter in the bookstore as well, but he’s the only one with sense enough to realize it may not be for him. He does decide to copy it though so that he can pawn it off as his own work to his wife.
So that’s the setup for this breezy romantic comedy that is perfect for a lazy summer afternoon. Yes, I know summer is practically over, but that’s the great thing about movies. You can experience any season you want all year long.