As Helen MacFarquhar in The Love Letter, Kate Capshaw has a marvelous look -- voluptuously frazzled. A single mother whose 11-year-old daughter is in camp for the summer, Helen is a woman at odds with herself. Living in a ramshackle New England town called Loblolly-by-the-Sea, she runs her bookstore with a distracted efficiency. We see her jog on the beach, and it's clear from her flailing, hectic gait that she's running away from something. Either that, or she's running -- ravenously -- into something new. If only she knew what it was?
Helen is punch-drunk from the sensual possibilities in the salt air; the wide vistas in Loblolly have a golden clearness, and the townspeople stand out against them in all their fleshy singularity. The setting is almost comically ripe for romance, and so it's a magical touch that Helen should find, in a bundle of mail at the store, a passionate, anonymous love letter. She, of course, believes it was written for her. Later, the letter is spied upon by others -- including Johnny (Tom Everett Scott), the buff 20-year-old college student working for the summer in her store -- and they join the erotic rondelay. Who the letter's author is becomes less important than the fantasies it inspires.
At its best, The Love Letter, based on the 1995 Cathleen Schine novel, is a lyrical little lark about the embarrassments of love. Peter Ho-sun Chan, a Hong Kong director making his American debut, has a deft touch. His camera slides among the Loblollers with a sly, insinuating speed; it's as if we were watching the trajectory of a hot rumor. The actors have a shaggy, Americana kind of familiarity, and yet, because they're always doing surprising things, they don't turn into friezes. Working from a script by Maria Maggenti, Chan understands the loony affliction of being love-struck.
The younger players in the lineup, such as Johnny, or his co-worker Jennifer (Julianne Nicholson), are jangly and impulsive. (Jennifer shears her tresses the day after Johnny apologetically rebuffs her advances.) The adults are equally scrambled -- lust is the great leveler. When, inevitably, Helen and Johnny bed down, he's full of romantic ardor while she, stunned by where her senses have led her, is flummoxed. "I've never felt this way before," he says to Helen. "Of course not," she replies. "You're 20." (Capshaw can be wonderfully deadpan.) Johnny has his grown-up counterpart in Tom Selleck's gentle George, the town's soon-to-be-divorced fireman, who loved Helen when they were back in their twenties and warms at the prospect of another go-round.
The film's farcical structure keeps the rondelay spinning in mid-air. Even the cynics are swept up. As Janet, Helen's wisecracking assistant and best friend, Ellen DeGeneres keeps shooting darts into everybody's love balloons, but she's as desirous of rapture as anybody else. She roots out the love letter, imagining it was addressed to her, and can't abide Helen's spoilsport insistence that it wasn't. In the course of the movie, just about every romantic mood is at least glancingly struck. It's a very democratic love story.
The chalkboard in Helen's bookstore carries daily messages, and one of them is from Shakespeare: "This is heavy midsummer madness." Not quite. The filmmakers are wrong to underscore a tone they haven't fully achieved. At times, The Love Letter resembles nothing so much as a folksy, "knowing" TV series on the order of Picket Fences. Loblolly is a little too quaint; the people can seem that way, too. And some of the actors one wants most to see, such as Blythe Danner and Gloria Stuart, playing Helen's mother and grandmother, barely make an appearance. There's a glibness to some of the frolics, as in the scene where Johnny peels an orange for Helen and we see the luscious fruit pulled apart. This is right out of the food-equals-sex Tom Jones handbook, and it's too obvious and uncouth for Chan's delicate balancing act.
One of the pleasures of Cathleen Schine's novel is the way Helen's bookishness is itself a kind of romance; the novel is about how one can be seduced not only by the flesh but by language -- by the taste and smell and feel of words. Schine made the literary sensibility -- of all things -- arousing. That's the book's wit. The movie adaptation is gaga in more conventional ways, but that doesn't mean it's a conventional movie. Unlike most so-called romantic comedies these days, it doesn't seem prepackaged, and that's because the filmmakers are tickled by the vagaries of amour. The love letter frees everybody to play out his or her erotic wishes, and everything goes blissfully, ruefully awry.