The pieces of the puzzle are there, but the film just can't put them together.
The Face of Love
The Face of Love has a premise that would prove a challenging sell for any filmmaker. Annette Bening plays a widow named Nikki who, five years after the death of her husband Garrett (Ed Harris), sees a man who looks like him at a museum. Exactly like him, in fact. The sight of the handsome doppelgänger intoxicates her with both fear and ecstasy, and she feels compelled to stalk him around Los Angeles.
Now, this can either be read as the behavior of a mad woman, or the behavior of a woman tragically chasing the ghost of her lost love. Either way, it’s completely absurd, but a good filmmaker can make it work, make us suspend our disbelief and buy into Nikki’s dark fantasy. Director Arie Posin doesn’t make it work, but he comes close, mostly thanks to his leads, both great actors. Without their talents, the film–with its momentum-less, scrambled script and pedestrian camerawork–would shatter into a million pieces.
When Nikki finally tracks down Garrett’s double, a man named Tom (Harris again, obviously) who teaches painting at Occidental College, and talks to him face to face, she’s hit with a tidal wave of emotion that floors her. (Bening is wonderful in this moment, writhing in pain, disbelief, and joy, as if she’s standing inches from the sun.) Predictably, she finds herself gravitating toward him, and him to her, and they fall into a relationship, though Nikki mentions nothing of Tom’s uncanny resemblance to her dear Garrett.
Is this a morally compromising pairing? At least on Nikki’s end of things, it seems to be teetering on the edge. One can easily see why she’s fallen for Tom, and besides him looking like Garrett, he actually seems like a sweet, good-hearted man. But it’s a clearly indefensible decision to not tell him that he looks just like her dead husband. She even tells him that Garrett dumped her, for some reason. She starts bringing Tom to she and Garrett’s old haunts, an idiotic display that makes no sense. He’s going to find out, you silly lady! Sympathy wanes when we see her make mistakes as dumb as this.
The reveal the film ambles toward is too contrived to generate any real suspense. We can see it coming a mile away, and when it hits–at the site of Garrett’s death, an empty beach in Mexico–it’s underwhelming, and a little weird (Bening and Harris nearly drown in an ocean of melodrama). In an earlier, climactic scene, Nikki’s daughter (Jess Weixler) is floored when she sees Tom, and when she blows up in his face Nikki yells “I need him!”, an allusion to addiction that Bening delivers well, but again feels a bit irksome.
Despite the ridiculousness of the story, it brings up some compelling ideas. How would you react if you met a double of your dead lover? And on the other side of the situation, how would you react if you were Tom and discovered you were the spitting image of your girlfriend’s dead husband? The moral implications of the scenario are intriguing, but this kind of love story is incredibly hard to buy into. Hitchcock did it in Vertigo, which The Face of Love resembles in more ways than one, but Posin struggles here.
Robin Williams plays Nikki’s jealous neighbor, who’s been asking her out for years but keeps getting shoved back into the friend zone. He’s little more than a plot device, but he makes the most of it, just like the two leads. Though most of us would turn and run in his situation, Harris makes us believe that he’s truly falling for this woman, despite her erratic, suspicious behavior. Bening has some fantastic moments (mostly in the first half of the film, before all logic goes out the window), and her chemistry with Harris is expectedly dynamic.
The Face of Love has the ingredients of a good film: terrific actors, a thought-provoking premise, and a capable director at the helm. But what sours the pot is the film’s script, which tells the story in such a meandering, unfocused fashion that the film loses us as the character’s actions descend into nonsensicality. Still, it’s hard not to be at least a little invested when you’ve got such incredible actors playing off each other on screen.