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Love for Sale

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On whether his successful novel "Love in the Time of Cholera" is in fact sincerely romantic, Gabriel Garcia Marquez is reputed to have warned, "You have to be careful not to fall into my trap." Filmmakers Ronald Harwood (writer) and Mike Newell (director) have found the trap and jumped in with willful, some might say insane, glee with their adaptation. Unfortunately, it is we who feel helplessly caught.

Pained, too, by such scenes as when Dr. Urbino (Benjamin Bratt) tells his blushing new bride, Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), in their nuptial bed, "This will be a lesson in love." Cut to a steamboat pipe whistling, where Fermina's lovesick admirer, Florentino Ariza (Javier Bardem), will eventually vomit overboard. Feel you there, buddy, but beat you to it by at least an hour.

One begins to wonder around this point whether Harwood and Newell themselves are not at least toying in their own way with the material and the audience's passion for it. (The plot is simple in this version: Florentino sleeps with hundreds of women while pining for Fermina, who thinks that his kind of love is an illusion.) Regardless, games would be futile because hardly anyone outside a retirement home for the blind could possibly buy this telenovela disguised as literary adaptation, in which we are expected to believe Bardem, looking not a day shy of 47, could be a love-struck puppy clerking in a telegraph office. Bratt, for his part, appears to be on hand to deliver his best interpretation of a Hispanic Mark Twain. The whole ensemble looks cheap, almost intentionally so, like a period comedy, not a drama. Note to Newell: When you have your young lead actress made up to look 72, avoid the numerous and lengthy tight close-ups, no matter how important the longing look.

But longing looks into space and at bare breasts, are just about all Newell gives us between the essentials of the novel's plot, with little perspective or other connective tissue to make sense of them. To most people the idea of a man kicking a lovely 20-year-old out of his life in favor of an old widow who once spurned him would seem ludicrous, but we are expected to see it as beautiful as a sunset. "The sky is crying," Florentino rhapsodizes with intense sincerity. You may be too, but more likely with laughter. (R) 138 min. S



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