Neil LaBute was more fun when his characters were torturing each other psychologically and talking about their genitals in public. Having established himself as the thinking man's shock-monger with his "In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors" (as well as his controversial stage plays), director LaBute set his sights on mass appeal with the soft-headed softball pitch "Nurse Betty." Heaps of undeserved praise later, he forges further into the safety zone with "Possession," a more focused but terminally polite excursion through the love lives of the literati.
LaBute, who abdicated writing duties on "Betty," gets a script credit on "Possession," as one of three writers who adapted the film from A.S. Byatt's Booker-prize-winning novel. But having a pen again in his hands equals no return to nasty form. For the first time, LaBute casts his perennial leading man, Aaron Eckhart, not as an irredeemable sleaze but as a lovable rogue -- namely, Roland Michell, an American research assistant helping the English celebrate the centennial of Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam, in flashback). Michell reports to a professor named Blackadder, and for a moment, we hope that BBC-baiting gags will rule the day. It doesn't happen: No subsequent character is introduced as Adjunct Professor Fawlty.
Instead, the story teams Michell with Limey scholar Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), a frosty customer who warms to his Yank charms as they pursue the unreported truth about Ash. Together, they learn that the great man secretly corresponded with Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), a woman poet who was -- brace yourself -- not his wife. This is not the sort of revelation that will knock the latest bin Laden video off Al-Jazeera, yet Michell and Bailey react with wide-eyed wonder to each new clue, which they divine by following especially meaningful lines of poetry to hidden cubbyholes, like a couple of overeducated Nancy Drews. Wondering why it has taken a century for anyone to do this distracts us from the lowbrow shame we feel at adjudging both plots (the Michell/Bailey romance, of course, parallels Ash/LaMotte) a snore.
Credit the stars for holding our interest. Eckhart is a lively presence as the irrepressible Michell, who knows that he'll never shake the stereotype of the ugly American and so elects to have as good a time with it as he can. Gwynnie, meanwhile, proves once again that she's just plain charming, no matter what movie she's in. You want to watch these two, and so you traipse along with them dutifully -- right up until the scene that shows them opening never-before-seen, potentially priceless documents mere inches away from a roaring fireplace. Maybe a shot of them visiting Kinko's first was cut for time, but stuffy plus silly equals game over. Alas and alack.