Oh, dear. What literary giant has the unstoppable Hollywood machine gone and tarnished now? That would be Gabriel García Márquez. The grandfather of magic realism is given a clumsy, saccharine and unsubtle treatment with a Love in the Time of Cholera adaptation that’s virtually dead on arrival. And how convenient to find that it’s being vomited (to employ a recurring action in the film) onto the big screen about a month after its inclusion into Oprah’s book club saw the 1985 novel spike to the top of the best-seller list.
The plot may be pretty much intact – tracking the unrequited, 50-year-love of Florentino (Javier Bardem) for Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) in an unnamed Caribbean city, despite Fermina’s marriage to wealthy doctor Juvenal (Benjamin Bratt) – but the execution is an embarrassment, bearing the odious stench of studio tinkering on a work that is untinkerable.
Hilarious only when it doesn’t intend to be, and groan-inducing when it does, the movie is tonally wrong and visually unstimulating. García Márquez’s tactile prose is filmed with the kind of aesthetically empty postcard-prettiness that had critics fawning over the “beautiful” settings of Brokeback Mountain. It’s about as far from Alfonso Arau’s inspired film adaptation of Like Water for Chocolate as a filmmaker can sink.
The blame here can be equally shared with the names above the marquee. One bad casting decision can destroy a movie, particularly when the source material’s many faithful have images in their heads for a casting director to live up to. The most egregious error comes in the form of John Leguizamo as Fermina’s father, who, while playing a character of menace, can’t retain an accent, stay in character or remember his lines; it looks like he flubbed lines left and right, and director Mike Newell just kept the camera rolling.
The best I can say for the leads is that Bratt is serviceable. But the blank-slate ennui etched on the faces of the droopy Bardem and pale Mezzogiorno that’s supposed to pass for contemplative acting hardly conveys the heft of García Márquez’s unspoken longing. If there’s any emotional connection to these characters, it’s down to your memory of the book and not this turgid translation.
Then there’s the dialogue. Some memorable nuggets: “I may not be married, but I know what love is.” “This is going to be a lesson in love.” “How joyless am I now.” “I’ll never be able to smell turpentine again without thinking of this blessed afternoon.” And the classic “I command this ship, but you command me.” Which of these came from Ronald Harwood’s script and which from García Márquez? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter; they sound just as stupid in context as they read here out of it. And there are dozens more where they came from.
The book may be an essential read for intellectuals, but the movie is strictly for people who hadn’t heard of the book until Oprah told them to read it. How else to explain painful pining and thematic density being reduced to emo-song whininess and sound-bite simplicity? Fans of García Márquez should avoid this adaptation like cholera, unless they want to see their favorite author’s masterpiece have the impact of a Nicholas Sparks weepie.