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Photograph by Daniel Daza/New Line Cinema
THE WAITING GAME: Giovanna Mezzogiorno's Fermina makes her lover wait 50 years in 'Love in the Time of Cholera.'

Love Sick

Love's just like a case of cholera, and that's one thing I don't want to holler for.

By Richard von Busack

I HAVE the disadvantage of not having read Gabriel García Márquez's novel Love in the Time of Cholera. But since Oprah just now picked it as a selection, the thrift stores will be full of it soon, and I can make up for my ignorance. There's a school of thought that says reading the book first just ruins the film. I can't test that theory here because the film I saw was in ruins already.García Márquez's tale tells of the lifelong affair carried on by an elegant clerk from Cartagena, Colombia, called Florentino (Javier Bardem); he survives plagues, civil wars and heartbreak during the course of his 50-year wait for the woman he loves. That woman is the wealthy heiress Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), who marries an austere, self-important doctor, Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt), and has a daughter. Meanwhile, Florentino soaks in poetry and consoles himself with hundreds of women. The physical animal is relieved, while the soul still stays pure and fixed upon the lady he may not have.Englishman Mike Newell's direction is the international, antiseptic kind, with a group of far-flung actors who can't harmonize their performances. When one sees the native Colombian actors in the background, one gets an idea of the kind of somberness and mysteriousness this production might have had. Of the gang, John Leguizamo comes off the worst, with his numb upper-lipped, "What-would-Brando-do?" performance as the evil father. The rest are so bechalked with heavy white-gray makeup, it's impossible to tell the cholera sufferers from the well, or the aged from the young.

Fermina is meant to be a love icon to last the decades. Instead, Newell draws her as an overly cautious, grave and haughty woman, known for strange qualities: a loathing of eggplant, a too-strong sense of smell. Mezzogiorno evinces no lambency, no hint of those qualities that would keep a man interested for half a century. She is outmatched even by the girl who plays her plain country cousin (the delightful Catalina Sandino Moreno from Maria Full of Grace). What Newell has done is like casting Agnes Moorehead as the lead role in a lush Selznick romance. Mezzogiorno's plainness may be a comment on the altruism and nobility of Florentino's dedication or an attempt to explain the disease metaphor in the title: love as a disorder that affects the eyes as well as the heart.

Bardem gives it everything he's got as the pining Florentino, who first appears dressed and coiffed like Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer from the Our Gang comedies. Then, as the decades go by, he is made up to look like Marcel Proust with a curled mustache. A parade of minor actresses flood through his life representing the 622 women Florentino beds in the novel. Thus the classic has the smell of a bad sex comedy; this is a movie that shows the downside of myriad topless scenes. As one of this parade, Laura Harring ought to have been enough for any man's consolation. Even the jungle isn't what it used to be: away from the city, the landscapes are of caged birds, botanical gardens and a erstwhile transcendent riverboat ride that's more like a two-drink-minimum dinner cruise.

Movie Times LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA (R), directed by Mike Newell, written by Ronald Harwood, based on the novel by Gabriel García Márquez, photographed by Affonso Beato and starring Javier Bardem, Giovanna Mezzogiorno and Benjamin Bratt, opens Nov. 16 at selected theaters.

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