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Cinema Junkie by Beth Accomando

In what may be a very calculated career move, actor Heath Ledger counters his introverted gay cowboy performance with a very extroverted, womanizing one as the title character in the sexual romp, Casanova (opening January 6 at Landmarks La Jolla Village Theaters) set in 18th century Venice.

Casanova wants to be like a frivolous French or Italian sex rompa decadent, luscious confection to delight audiences. And the film begins promisingly with a young and lusty Casanova (Heath Ledger) bounding from one bed to the next and servicing the nuns and novices at a local convent. But Casanova is soon shot through the heart by Cupids bow and falls in love with the freethinking Francesca (Sienna Miller), who is something of an early feminist but with a romantic heart. The film is mostly about Casanova going against his nature and remaining celibate as he pursues the pure Francesca and eludes the authorities that want to arrest him for his past sexual escapades.

Casanovas life has inspired a number of films (Richard Chamberlain, Donald Sutherland and Marcello Mastroianni have all played him) but none too memorable. This latest version, by Lasse Hallstrom, is diverting but will also probably fade quickly from memory. Halstrom, who gained famed for My Life as a Dog and Chocolat, makes Casanova light and frothy but not terribly clever or inspired. The oddest thing about the film is that it is a sex romp almost devoid of sex. Sex does not even enter the conversation very often and theres little sense of sensuality or even passion. Theres just a timid sense of romance. The film also seems to crave the speed and chaos of a farce but Halstrom never seems able to muster that level of energy and activity. The script, written by Jeffrey Hatcher (Stage Beauty) and Kimberly Simi, tries to borrow from French farce, Italian commedia del arte, and even from Shakespeare (think Portia). But the script never comes together successfully as either farce or romance. There is humorous potential in taking the famous womanizer and forcing him to avoid sex in the name of true love, but Hatcher and Simi dont know how to get mileage out of this basic gag. They need a greater sense of sexual playfulness and wit to make this a memorable Casanova.

Visually, the film is pleasing to look at. There are opulent sets and attractive performers wrapped in gorgeous costumes. But the production design almost weighs down what should be a frothy comedy. To counter his performance as the reticent and lacomic gay lover in Brokeback Mountain, Heath Ledger expends a lot of energy chasing down female conquests as Casanova. Hes charming and attractive and well matched by Sienna Millers Francescaalthough were not quite convinced that this one woman could make Casanova change his ways so quickly and completely.

Casanova (rated R for sexual situations) is diverting but not very satisfying. When you consider the talent involved, it could have been so much more.

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