I wonder, wonder, who-oo-oo…who wrote the book of love?
John Twiller (Michael McKean, A Mighty Wind, This is Spinal Tap) takes down his high school yearbook and begins to reminiscence about that time he first moved into the neighborhood in 1956. His teenage self, Jack (Chris Young, PCU), is obsessed with Lily (Josie Bissett, Melrose Place), one of the more popular girls around. The sole obstacle is Angelo, her bullying boyfriend (Beau Dremann, My Science Project). With the help of his pals Crutch (Keith Coogan, Adventures in Babysitting), Floyd (John Cameron Mitchell, Hedwig and the Angry Itch), and Spider (Danny Nucci, Titanic, The Rock), he makes every attempt possible to change her mind.
Book of Love is an entertaining film, one that has eluded the grasp of most major critics. It is often hilarious, especially with Floyd's escapades. But there is also a touching humanity here that most teen films ignore. Based on a novel by underground cult author William Kotzwinkle, the film is actually a good variation on the theme established by such earlier classics as American Graffiti. While Book of Love isn't quite as affecting or brilliant as Graffiti, there is much to savor here. It is more sexually frank and honest, at least in this R-rated director's cut. (The film was edited and re-rated PG-13 in an attempt to draw youth to the theaters; it didn't work.) The characters aren't caricatures or crudely drawn, but rather living, breathing people you can believe in.
Some critics carped about the fact that a film set in 1956 used a song that was released in 1958 for its theme. So what? That seems like needless nitpicking to me. It's close to the period, unlike the way Queen tunes filled medieval Europe in A Knight's Tale.
The director is Robert Shaye, the co-chairman and co-CEO of New Line Cinema. He makes his directorial debut with Book of Love and does a good job for a first shot. Shaye has a firm grasp of how to tell a good story as coherently as possible, and has a nice eye for detail and period flavor. He also manages to elicit good performances from his cast of (then) little-known actors. It's a shame Shaye hasn't directed other films, as this was a solid debut that displays obvious talent.
For a cast of relatively unknown actors, the acting is fairly good. Each performance delivers exactly what's necessary for the character in a natural and uncomplicated manner. The film's funniest performance comes from John Cameron Mitchell as the unflappable, Hefneresque Floyd. Every time he appears on screen with his slicked-back hair and pipe in mouth, Mitchell inspires major laughs. Also notable is Tricia Leigh Fisher (daughter of Eddie Fisher and Connie Stevens) as Gina, the girl who eventually steals Jack's heart. She's another one of those promising young actresses of whom you wonder, "Whatever happened to her?"
New Line presents Book of Love in an 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. It's a good transfer, although I spotted some problem areas. Some scenes have far more grain than they should (particularly the McKean sequences). My guess is that a different film stock was used for these segments. Colors look sharp and vibrant, reminiscent of the classic 1950s cinema. Edge enhancement is almost non-existent, except for a few scenes here and there. It's much better than the prints you'd see on broadcast TV and VHS.
Continuing the encouraging trend, the audio recording is superior. New Line supplies a magnificent DTS Surround track that sounding rich and envelops you with score and dialogue. The other two Dolby Digital tracks, both 2.0 and 5.1 stereo, are both fine, too. You can't go wrong with any of these audio options.
Several fine extras are included on this disc. The commentary track by director Robert Shaye has some gaps, but is otherwise worth listening to. Shaye reveals a great deal of information about both the production and the struggle over whether to release the PG-13 or R version to theaters.
Meet Bob Shaye is a 25-minute documentary in which Shaye discusses how he got his start in the business, guiding New Line Cinema from a college campus distributor to the major studio it is today. It's a fascinating and informative background piece.
As a special bonus not advertised in any of the promotional material or on the keep case, Shaye's first student film, Image, is offered here for the first time on video. It is a 10-minute black-and-white avant-garde film—bizarre, yet exhilarating in its own strange way. Shaye also offers commentary for this short film—a good thing, since most viewers will be baffled by what they see before them.
Ten TV spots are included, running anywhere from 20 to 60 seconds long. They're interesting to watch once. You'll also find the film's original theatrical trailer, in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, plus additional trailers for Dog Park, Woo, and Blast from the Past. All except Blast in the Past are offered in anamorphic widescreen. It figures that the one good film of the bunch would be relegated to full frame.
With a retail price of $19.99, Book of Love is reasonable enough for a blind buy. But I would recommend a rental first, as some viewers may be turned off by the 1950s setting and the frankness of the story.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Audio Commentary by Director Robert Shaye
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