This tale of a grieving, privileged widow gets gummed up in plot mechanics and excessive design porn
“The Face of Love” (opening March 7 in Los Angeles) traffics in the kind of audacious premise — five years after her husband dies, a woman meets his exact look-alike — that Pedro Almodóvar could have really turned into something provocative and meaningful. In the hands of “Chumscrubber” director Arie Posin (who co-wrote with Matthew McDuffie), the results are gooey and half-baked, with plot contrivances butting up against genteel design porn.
Annette Bening stars as Nikki, a “stager” of houses; she makes them look lived-in so as to attract potential buyers. Her own home is a gorgeous little L.A. jewel box, complete with lap pool, designed by her architect husband Garrett (Ed Harris). But then her seemingly perfect life is turned upside down on a trip to Mexico when Garrett, buzzed on pot and tequila, drowns in the ocean.
Five years later, we see Nikki soldiering on with the support of her 20-something daughter Summer (Jess Weixler) and widowed neighbor Roger (Robin Williams), but it's obvious that Garrett lingers in her psyche, all the more present in his absence. When Summer points out that Nikki no longer goes to the L.A. County Museum of Art, which she often visited with Garrett, Nikki decides to go back — only to be gobsmacked when she sees a dead ringer for Garrett.
Nikki starts returning to the museum every day, sitting on the bench where she first saw the man, and eventually she catches up with him. He turns out to be Tom (also Harris), a blocked artist who's now teaching painting at a local college, and she hires him as a private tutor so that she can get to know him better.
It's at this point that “The Face of Love” starts spinning its wheels as Posin and McDuffie let the plot get away from them: It makes sense, yes, that Nikki would lie to Tom and say that Garrett left her rather than left her a widow, but if Tom can look her up on Google before taking her on as a student, how hard would it have been for him to find that she has a dead husband? One who looks exactly like Tom, for that matter?
The movie captures genuine emotion as we see how Garrett constantly enters Nikki's thoughts, and when Nikki sets out on her obsessive quest to track down Tom, but once they get together, and she has to hide her new love from Summer and Roger, the plot overwhelms the characters. By the time she's got Tom trying on a seersucker suit that looks like the one Garrett wore the night he died, “The Face of Love” has become “Vertigo” for the Talbots set.
Given that major characters are painters and architects and living-space arrangers, it makes sense that much of the movie is given over to discussions of art and design, but even with this context, “The Face of Love” starts to take on a lifestyle-catalog sheen that distances us from the very real pain that the characters are feeling.
Bening and Harris do what they can with the material, while poor Williams underplays to the point of near non-existence. In a better movie, this wouldn't have been an issue, but did it not occur to Posin that casting Bening as a woman who arranges houses for sale and Harris as a painter would inevitably call up memories of their acclaimed roles in “American Beauty” and “Pollock,” respectively? Their on-screen history just winds up shoe-horning more doppelgangers into a movie that can barely manage one.