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Split Tease 

Gimmicky romance bores with stagey dialogue, scores with comic relief

Wednesday, Aug 9 2006
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Helena Bonham Carter is barely 40, and Aaron Eckhart still a couple of years shy, but already they're old enough that, in Conversations With Other Women, totally different twentysomething actors have to portray them in flashbacks. Carter gets the better end of the deal, portrayed in her youth by Brick's femme fatale Nora Zehetner. The lesser-known Erik Eidem looks and sounds nothing like Eckhart, but Zehetner's skill at faking an English accent goes a long way. It is perhaps a plot point that the two characters, billed merely as "Man" and "Woman," are in fact unrecognizable from their youth, but are they really so old that we can't simply throw on some bad wigs and a ton of makeup? The right lighting guy could surely have made it happen.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The movie begins with a bit of a Wedding Crashers vibe, as Eckhart's Man is clearly looking to score, and his intended target is standing all alone, surreptitiously smoking after having been banned from doing so almost everywhere else.

Something we also need to mention — the entire movie is shot in split-screen. But don't be frightened; it isn't as challenging a device as it might sound. This isn't Time Code, where four stories unspool at once. One side of the screen may occasionally veer into flashback, fantasy, or slight time-delay, but mostly it's just an alternate angle on the main action. Sometimes the focus will be different. Other times the boundary clearly indicates the individual character's personal space so that when one crosses into the other, you know they've entered the intimacy zone. A lot of the time it simply seems like an easy way to get both actors' close-ups at once without having to cut back and forth.

Gabrielle Zevin's stagey dialogue is fun to listen to, but by the time you've figured everything out, it's almost insufferably coy. These two characters approach each other as if they're strangers, yet we find out in short order that they've had a significant past together, and that significance becomes stronger as the story moves forward. In order to buy what we're hearing, we must either assume that the characters love word games and speaking in the abstract about one another, to the point of distraction, or that they genuinely don't recognize each other, which seems a stretch given that their respective connections to the bride aren't kept secret for long.

First-time feature director Hans Canosa never lets things get boring, though he occasionally plays his cards too blatantly; when Carter announces that she's ready to take off her dress, a French song kicks in on the soundtrack, and you may think to yourself that this movie resembles a French romantic drama (specifically, An Affair of Love, in which two similarly nameless protagonists try and fail to have an affair without attachments). After two more songs by the same singer, Carla Bruni, you're thinking, Enough already; we get that you're trying for a Gallic vibe. A hint is nice; a sledgehammer, uncomfortable.

Canosa's sensibility, however, is decidedly Hollywood in its notion that 40 is hopelessly old for a woman, and in his attempt to make us believe that Eckhart is "fat" by any reasonable definition. In a popular culture where youth is everything, the lamentations of the soon-to-be middle-aged leads may resonate with those in a similar demographic ("'Clever' played better 10 years ago, when I had the youthful swagger to fake it," says Eckhart, and he could easily be referring to his breakthrough role in Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men. ) But by most nonartificial standards, they're still a pretty beautiful twosome, and Canosa's unafraid of flaunting their naked bodies to prove it.

Whether there's merit in the movie depends on how willing you are to give its contrivances a pass. I'm mostly inclined to do so, and give it points for the occasional moments of comic relief, courtesy of The O.C.'s Olivia Wilde as a nosy bridesmaid, and Reno 911 star Thomas Lennon as the official wedding videographer. The split-screen gimmick is just that, but you could do a lot worse than watching the two gifted lead actors gab.

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Luke Y. Thompson

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