Right in the face

It’s a bad sign when Robin Williams is the most sympathetic actor in a movie

The Face of Love might be the worst blandest title for a film ever though I suppose it’s literally true; one character in the movie is in love with another’s um face.

Nikki (Annette Bening) and Garrett (Ed Harris) are crazy in love. Their marriage is 30 years strong. Or should I say was: the film opens with Nikki in flashback mode ruminating on memories from the couple’s 30th anniversary celebration in Mexico. While there Garrett drowned in a tragic accident. Five years later Nikki is drowning her sorrows in a huge glass of Pinot Grigio.

She takes a vacation from her despair to visit the local museum where she sees a man who looks exactly like Garrett. (He does exactly; Harris plays him. What are the odds?) Nikki confides in her best pal Roger (Robin Williams) a fellow widower who conveniently lives across the street and nurses a serious crush on her.

Nikki decides to return to the museum day after day in the hopes of encountering Garrett’s doppelgänger. Eventually she does and begins stalking him. His name is Tom. He’s an art professor at Occidental College and it seems a pretty decent guy.

Rather than just present him with this odd coincidence which to be fair would probably come across as alienating and crazy she tells him that her husband left her and she’d like to pay him for private lessons. She quickly jettisons the art lessons. Instead in what’s clearly a wiser option that’s guaranteed not to backfire on her she starts a relationship with him under the delusion that he’ll clearly never catch on to her ruse. Nikki’s behaviour continues to get more erratic and insane and the film piles on one bizarre plot twist after another. It’s only a matter of time before the whole house of cards falls apart.

The Face of Love is one of those films that looks like it was loads of fun for the cast to make: it’s shot in L.A. so would have involved a relatively short drive to work and they get to hang out at their favourite restaurants and art galleries. There’s a lot of talk about painting in the film one of Harris’s real-life loves; I’m sure the Rauschenberg on Nikki’s wall is genuine.

Bening takes the whole thing dreadfully seriously mournfully gazing at the waves crashing on the shore her existential despair buried under a pile of gauzy shawls. This is a woman on the verge of a classy breakdown. Harris is always welcome and does what he can with the gonzo premise and Williams once again shows that he’s great at playing dramatic roles rather than merely playing himself. There are a few honest painful moments in the film — those daily reminders like telemarketers asking for Nikki’s husband that bring her mourning flooding in again. The ghost of Garrett is everywhere. Though to be fair every bald guy looks like Ed Harris from the back.

The whole thing plays like an overly serious Dove commercial trading homilies about wrinkly laugh lines for Vanilla Sky -inspired hysteria. The overly caffeinated camera flits around the screen distractedly director Arie Posin (who also co-wrote the screenplay) endlessly enamoured with smiles phones and wine glasses. The rich life in L.A. looks as facile as you’d expect. (Hello 1980.) And why oh why would you continue to live near the ocean after you continue to be horrifically traumatized by your husband’s death by drowning?

It’s refreshing to see a film that deals with a romantic relationship between two 50-plus people in an honest way but The Face of Love is not that film. When Williams is the most sympathetic intelligent person in a movie you know you’ve got problems.

THE FACE OF LOVE directed by Arie Posin starring Annette Bening Ed Harris and Robin Williams opens on Friday June 6.