There's something surprisingly right about casting Morgan Freeman as a sad, wise and wistful Shakespearean narrator in "Feast of Love." He never has the chance to play old romantics, though there's often a hint of romance to his best roles, especially when he narrates the film, too.
Here, he's on screen and omniscient, not passing judgment, even if his character, like Hemingway, knows there are no happy endings.
"The ending is always right there in the beginning," he says of one of the sets of matched (and mismatched) lovers who float through his life and that of the Portland, Ore., coffee shop, Jitters, where he hangs out. Freeman's presence lends this somber, sweet movie a poignancy it might have lacked, despite the sure-hand of a filmmaker known for just that emotion.
"Feast of Love" is adapted from a Charles Baxter novel based on Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Director Robert Benton ("Places in the Heart," "Kramer vs. Kramer") cast Freeman as Harry Scott, a college professor with an adoring wife (Jane Alexander) and a ready reserve of wit, charm and advice.
"Try focusing on simple pleasures." "Their eyes met and their fates were sealed."
But Harry's a man with a touch of sorrow about him, someone questioning himself and the advice that he is so ready to give all the younger people who value his perspective.
Bradley, his pal (Greg Kinnear), is a slightly over-bearing Good Neighbor Sam, a sap who leads with his heart even if he isn't the best listener. Harry sees Bradley's first marriage fail before Bradley does. Harry is there the night a brazen lesbian puts the moves on Kathryn (Selma Blair) right in front of her oblivious husband.
Harry's there when Chloe (Alexa Davalos), a flower child in short, short cut-off jeans, steals the heart of espresso server Oscar (Toby Hemingway), a love that she bravely plunges into in spite of serious misgivings. He is "Pisces, Virgo rising." That's all she needs to know.
There's Diana (Radha Mitchell in a deliciously cruel turn), ready to give up her fling with a married man (Billy Burke of "Fracture"), a jerk who sees her as just as much a creep as he is.
It's a neighborhood with a jinxed house where no love affair can endure, where Oscar's bitter, violent dad (Fred Ward, never scarier) can take out his pain on his son.
It's also a place where love begins again, even for people who realize the affair is doomed from the start.
Benton has a gift for casting, even if it is "on the nose" (actors almost too perfect for the part). Kinnear is at his most endearing, and Freeman, shorn of his flintiness, has never been sweeter.
Which is another way of saying this movie teeters on the edge of precious, much of the time, no matter how sad the break-ups, no matter how edgy the sex scenes. But Benton's sure hand with this sort of material always shows itself in a shared glance, in a palm-reader's melancholy prediction of a love that won't endure, in the ways gentle souls reach out for other gentle souls even after they've feasted on love and choked on it too many times before.