Judge Patrick Bromley dares to ask the age-old question on the minds of parole officers everywhere: why is it "romantic" for an older woman to have an affair with a sixteen-year-old guy, but "creepy" for an older man to have an affair with a sixteen-year-old girl?
Now a marriage will be tested.
There might be an interesting movie in this story about a married woman who falls for a 16-year old boy, but Alan Brown's Book of Love isn't it. It gives us three people that we never really get to know and makes them behave in ways that we can't possibly understand. This is the kind of movie where it rains every time the characters find themselves weathering emotional storms. Its metaphors are that predictable.
History teacher David Walker (the usually bland Simon Baker, Sunset Strip, possibly doing his best work) is married to Elaine Walker (Frances O'Connor, Timeline, Bedazzled)—though I'm not sure what she does, save for take yoga classes, which is really all we see of her. They're a hip, "cultured" couple, which means that they do some traveling and hang out in jazz clubs and drink wine. At least, I think that's what "cultured" means, because it's these things that impress Chet Becker (a name that's actually very close to Chet Baker, which might make for a more interesting movie. At any rate, he's played by Small Soldiers's Gregory Smith), the 16-year old kid who works at the local ice cream parlor. The Walkers stop in for ice cream one night and get to talking with Chet. He's impressed by them, and they like being impressive, so they start taking him out and inviting him for dinner. Wouldn't you know it's not long before Elaine and Chet are spending time alone together? And that some things happen that threaten to destroy the Walkers' marriage? And that somehow, some way, both Disneyland and Cambodia factor in to all of this? If you only got the first two correct, I don't blame you.
The central conceit of Book of Love doesn't work. The characters don't make sense in the context of the whole film—they simply behave in whatever manner suits a given scene. What is the relationship between the couple and the boy? At times it seems parental, at times friendly; neither suggest romantic, which is what it ultimately becomes. And how is it that Chet, so shy and awkward in every other aspect of his life, is able to be so aggressive—confident to the point of cocky—when it comes to Elaine? Frances O'Connor, working overtime to be quirky (quirking overtime?), doesn't let us understand what it is that compels her to sleep with this young man. (Which reminds me—wouldn't it be a very different film if the Simon Baker character were the one sleeping with his 16-year old student, played by a pre-Hollywood-makeover Bryce Dallas Howard of The Village?) Adrian Lyne's Unfaithful did a far better job of exploring the psychology of infidelity, but that was without the additional age component thrown in. It begs the question of why the "other man" was made to be so young in the first place—there's no attempt to deal with the implications of that reality, so why include it? Dodging it altogether is a cheat.
The DVD of Book of Love comes courtesy of Sundance Channel, which would explain why all of the extras somehow tie in to the famous film festival. The movie is presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio; recognizing that the movie is a low-budget effort, I have to say that I was underwhelmed by the quality of the transfer—it's soft and washed out and shows a considerable amount of source defects. The stereo audio track is roughly the same, with the dialogue mixed too low and coming out muddy. The fact that there are no subtitles doesn't help matters much.
The supplemental section of the disc is spare and unimpressive, but somehow still quite telling about where the movie goes wrong. Aside from the usual collection of trailers, there's a Sundance Film Festival profile (running under a minute—how well can someone be profiled in 50 seconds?) on writer/director Alan Brown that's too brief to even register. The only other extra is a "conversation" with Brown (this one clocks in at about 2 minutes), where he tells us that he was inspired to write Book of Love by two things: the press coverage of school teacher Mary Kay LeTourneau and the Khmer Rogue refugees living in Cambodia. If that statement doesn't suggest that Brown's out of his depth, I don't know what will. He also makes the claim that his movie doesn't judge its characters, especially at its conclusion. I beg to differ.
Speaking of the ending, it's the best thing about the movie. Brown conjures up some powerful images and creates some good moments—a feat he manages to accomplish sporadically throughout the film, showing flashes of real talent and suggesting he's a director to watch. It's the kind of ending that's good enough to make you think the movie is better than it really is.
The music helps. In fact, the music throughout all of Book of Love is excellent—the kind of moody acoustic folk/rock that really sells this (problematic) material, including multiple renditions of the titular "Book of Love" (though none as good as Peter Gabriel's cover in Shall We Dance). I don't know if Alan Brown will make another movie, but at least the guy responsible for the music should get more work.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Sundance Channel
• 2004 Sundance Film Festival Profile of Writer/Director Alan Brown
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