It's never easy translating a book into a film, which is probably why so many adaptations fall into a default mode of handsome sloggery. Get the plot up on the screen, fill it with acclaimed actors and pretty production design, and the rest, the logic seems to go, will take care of itself. Only it never does. Adapting Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 1987 novel Love In The Time Of Cholera with that approach, director Mike Newell (Four Weddings And A Funeral, Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire) fails to get the job done. To be fair, it's a tough job. Even though it runs over two hours, Newell's film barely has room to touch on the key moments of his dense, discursive source material, and the hit-the-highlights-and-go-home approach does no one any favors. Instead of an immersive, decades-spanning love story unfolding against a backdrop of political and social upheaval as the 19th century fades into the 20th, we get to see the stars stage selected scenes in period costumes, as if the cameras had caught an expensive game of dress-up.
An illegitimate child of limited means but considerable drive, Florentino Ariza (played in early scenes by Unax Ugalde and as an adult by Javier Bardem), fills out some of those costumes. He develops an obsessive crush on his neighbor (played throughout by the stiff, decidedly post-teenaged Italian actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno), the daughter of an upwardly mobile mule merchant (John Leguizamo, not afraid to ham it up). Forbidden to act on her love for her suitor, she's instead paired off with a handsome doctor (Benjamin Bratt) whom she marries for reasons other than love—or at least not the sort of love she once knew for the man who refuses to slip fully from her life.
Newell's film arrives loaded with problems. The most superficial, but undeniably distracting, involves the way characters age at different rates and under makeup of varying believability. More damningly, Marquez's tone—a delicate mix of comedy and tragedy conveyed with the bittersweet sting of a shared memory—dies on the screen. Jilted by one woman, Florentino throws himself into a life of meaningless affairs with many. But the humping, often played for laughs, makes a deeper impression than the heartbreak, no matter how bushy and grey the makeup department makes Bardem's mournful mustache.