The new romantic comedy Love in the Time of Cholera opens with the death (by parrot and ladder) of a very old man -- and then, right after his funeral, the reunion of his widow, Fermina, with Florentino, who has loved her, unrequitedly, for 51 years, nine months and four days. His gall upsets her, and she shrieks at him to get out of her house and never return.
Their story then flashes back to 1879 Colombia, where the young Florentino spots Fermina in town one day and instantly falls in love. An epistolary courtship follows, until Fermina's churlish father (John Leguizamo) has her taken away. (Somewhere in the world of romantic literature is a town populated only by lovelorn girls sent there by their fathers.)
Eventually Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) returns and marries a doctor (Benjamin Bratt). Florentino (Javier Bardem), still sick with love (but not cholera, which is a metaphor as much as a disease), remains a virgin in every way but one: He passes the next half century sleeping with 622 women of various stations, personalities and positions. I mean physical positions: During one tryst, a sour-faced cat scratches his ass while he's in flagrante (at least, I think that was her name).
Perhaps not too many people will see Gabriel García Márquez's renowned novel as a comedy. But surely we can't embrace such drivel without a roll of the eyes to mitigate its rolls in the hay. In fact, the film version, handsomely directed by Mike Newell, is squarely postmodern, at once embracing its genre and slyly deconstructing it, although the effort hardly seems worth it, at least on film.
Apart from that nasty cat, the film's humor is more of the intellectual (and existential) variety: I thought it was funny, therefore it was. You can only laugh when Florentino's mother, overjoyed that her son has fallen in love, tells him, "Suffer all you can. These things won't last your whole life." The tantalizing prologue asks you to consider whether Florentino is a madman or a fool. Of course, he's both: "Fool for love" and "crazy for you" aren't mere rhetoric.
The periphery of Newell's film is dizzyingly lush: Even the whorehouse has an orchestra to serenade its bare-breasted bacchanal. The film concludes with the bittersweet middle-aged notion that the spirit stays young while the body grows old. A septuagenarian Fermina even bares her wilted breasts to prove it.
The performances vary, as they always do with so many ersatz accents. Leguizamo apparently got his role because Luis Guzman was busy: Sure, his character is a "rough diamond," but this diamond sounds like it came from West 47th Street. Only the soulful Bardem fully captivates, using his face, his voice, his body and the intangibles that characterize a great actor. When Florentino falls to the ground and weeps at the news of Fermina's marriage, I dare you not to feel his pain.