There's no point pretending that "The Love Letter" is going to knock anybody's socks off, but if you're anxious to avoid "NerdTrek, Part 8: The Waffle Phoenix" or whatever that other movie with the plastic swords and rampaging stuffed animals is called, you could definitely do worse. Hong Kong director Peter Ho-sun Chan (best known for the comedies "Comrades: Almost a Love Story" and "He's a Woman, She's a Man") brings an intimate focus and a sprightly touch to his first American film, a tart, surprisingly subtle summer-romance comedy with some terrific acting and a wistful emotional undertow.
Kate Capshaw, who stars in and co-produced "The Love Letter," has cast herself perfectly here as Helen, the divorced, slightly neurotic bookstore owner in a Massachusetts beach town, all WASPy angles, stretched neck tendons and itchy mannerisms. Capshaw was an appealing if undistinguished ingenue in the second Indiana Jones movie, but as a somewhat older actress I find her far more interesting (and sexier, to tell the truth). I have no idea, by the way, what it says about Capshaw or her relationship with husband Steven Spielberg that she once again plays a middle-aged woman hungry for a youthful stud-muffin (as she did in the greasily enjoyable cowboy-gothic "The Locusts"). Such issues, however fascinating, are beyond the ethical boundaries of film criticism.
Helen's bookkeeper and best pal is Janet (Ellen DeGeneres), a slightly blowsy, sunburned party gal with, of course, a sharp tongue. It's easy to like any character DeGeneres plays (although, personally, I'd love to see her as somebody truly loathsome), and she's completely convincing in this hetero hedonist role. Some axiom I don't understand is at work in Hollywood: Since coming out, Anne Heche has played a succession of randy straight women, while this is the first post-"Ellen" role for DeGeneres where she has any sexuality at all. Unhappily, the screenplay by Maria Maggenti (writer/director of "The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love"), adapted from Cathleen Schine's novel, doesn't give Janet enough to do. She knocks sense into Helen every once in a while, and engages in goofball-Ellen physical business with piles of books and ketchup bottles, but it's strictly sidekick stuff.
There isn't much to do, period, in Loblolly-by-the-Sea. It's the kind of small town that exists mostly in the movies, a place where dogs refuse to budge from the street and the postmistress must discuss the destination of every postcard. So when Helen finds an unaddressed, unsigned love letter amid the bookstore's mail, it sends her into a farcical tizzy. Fortunately, we never have to listen to the letter all the way through; it's larded with pseudo-Anglo poetry along the lines of, "I no longer care for my thoughts unless they are thoughts of you." But Helen rapidly begins hallucinating, hearing it recited to her by co-workers, passing garbage collectors and sunning senior citizens. She follows the path of least libidinal resistance into the illogical belief that hunky college boy Johnny (Tom Everett Scott), working in the store for the summer, is her secret admirer. Out in the audience, we're all howling for her to pay attention to George (Tom Selleck), the affable town fireman, who's been carrying a torch for Helen since high school.
Selleck has now reached the stage in his career where he benefits from what I call Nietzsche's Law of Celebrity Comebacks: Those who survive a period of really stupid fame often prosper in its wake. I don't expect Selleck to be crossing swords with Kenneth Branagh in the next celebrity Shakespeare-a-thon, but as a gruffer, huskier guy who's no longer pretending to be young (and with the egregious "Magnum P.I." moustache gone), Selleck makes an unassuming character actor with access to tremendous audience goodwill. God help me, it's almost believable when George sets up his bee-smoker outside Helen's window -- if you don't know what a bee-smoker is, you're a city slicker for sure -- and offhandedly tells her, "I get fired up when I listen to opera. All the great human emotions in three hours and all I have to do is sit there."
But poor sensitive George gets left on the sidelines while Helen and Johnny attack each other like carnivores, writhing around on the floor of her bathroom or in the bookstore's storeroom. It's obvious to us the whole time that Johnny didn't write the letter -- he actually finds it in Helen's kitchen and assumes she wrote it to him -- and Helen herself starts to wonder when Johnny leaves her a note saying, "I love you more than my car." Unfortunately, Johnny's no more than a screenwriter's contrivance, a luscious prop for Helen's midlife crisis, and Scott's terrific physique and boyish cheer can't save him from being the film's weakest character.
If Helen is really meant for George, Johnny is meant for Jennifer (Julianne Nicholson), a cutie-pie, freckle-faced feminist who ogles him eagerly while explaining, "I hate to objectify you, but historically it is my turn." Jennifer is Maggenti's most blissful creation here, and Nicholson perfectly conveys her awkward combination of small-town girl and gender-theory radical. Rejected by Johnny, Jennifer chokes back her tears, saying, "I'm sure I'm just having an ego-vanity reaction right now. I don't need your desire to make me feel like a woman."
In due course, Janet finds the letter and thinks it's from George, triggering a cold war between Helen and Janet. Ever-hopeful George takes Helen to the opera, where she weeps like a baby, causing us in the audience to howl still more when she flees back to Johnny's nubile charms. But it's Helen's standoffish mother (a cameo by Broadway legend Blythe Danner, who looks maybe seven years older than Capshaw), along with the mysterious town spinster Miss Scattergoods (English stage actress Geraldine McEwan), who may have some idea of the letter's true provenance.
Chan's direction is never forced or showy, and it keeps the focus on Capshaw's fine performance as someone who allows vanity and lust to clutter up her radar screen, as virtually all of us do. The film's languid, late-summer pace is eventually balanced out by a slightly sad, minor-key ending. If "The Love Letter" is an allegorical tale about human communication, it argues that patience and good intentions aren't always enough, but may be the best we can do. When Helen, realizing how badly she has hurt George, asks him to forgive her, he answers with dignity: "Forgive you for what? Being human? Messy, fucked-up? That's the good stuff."