As Maisie Williams' narration starts in "The Book of Love" -- in her best raspy bayou drawl -- over a scene of boaters finding a mysterious journal lost at sea, it's clear what kind of film this is, or that it's trying to be. It's a new-ish genre, a tragicomedy awash in whimsical realism. "The Book of Love" isn't quite magical, as it stays firmly grounded in this world, but there's healthy dose of surreality from the actions of the offbeat characters.
Jason Sudeikis plays stiff New Orleans architect Henry, married to manic pixie dream girl Penny (Jessica Biel). An artist, pregnant with their first child, she loves kung fu movies, plays little games with her husband in the morning, makes him wear purple sneakers, and does things like hold up signs in the window exhorting him to "Be Bold." But while Penny has more than enough personality traits and peccadilloes, Henry is defined only by his love and appreciation for her quirks, and subsequently, her absence in his life after her sudden death. There's nothing interesting about him, and yet, the entire film is about his journey as he navigates his life without her.
Adrift after her death, he pursues a friendship with teen street urchin Millie (Williams), who rummages around in his trash looking for supplies for a sea-faring raft she's building. Obsessed with stories like Kon-Tiki, Millie wants to build a raft to sail to the Azores, and Henry decides to help her (he also feels guilty about accidentally burning down her shed while reading the lost-at-sea journal). It offers him purpose, friendship, distraction and hopefully, catharsis.
It's just very hard to buy into Millie and Henry's scheme. As she reveals her reasons for wanting to set sail, it's clear that the raft is merely a symbol for her emotional journey, one that Henry latches onto (remember the aforementioned lack of personality traits?), in need of a strange woman to give his life purpose. The stakes and emotional thrust of a film such as this demand that they actually set sail, but it's such a terrible and harebrained idea that as an audience member, it's impossible to side with Henry on this decision, though it's played as a triumph.
You can't help but compare "The Book of Love" to other films that share similar themes, settings, and even scenes. Jake Gyllenhaal also sledgehammered his marital home in a fit of grief for his deceased wife in the similarly whimsical tragicomic drama "Demolition," and the Louisiana setting, homemade raft, and precocious moppet calls to mind the Sundance sensation "Beasts of the Southern Wild." These comparisons make "The Book of Love" feel derivative and unoriginal, and Henry isn't enough of a character to hang the film around. He's surrounded by oddballs, but tertiary weirdos aren't enough to make him fascinating.
Written by Robbie Pickering and Bill Purple, and directed by Purple, there are some heartfelt moments, especially from Williams, who ultimately pulls out a touching performance. Sudeikis does the best with what he's given. Justin Timberlake composes a pretty score, and performs a beautiful song toward the end. But for a film that's trying very hard to make you feel, it sure leaves you cold.
'THE BOOK OF LOVE'
2 out of 4 stars
Cast: Jason Sudeikis, Jessica Biel, Maisie Williams, Mary Steenburgen, Paul Reiser, Orlando Jones
Directed by: Bill Purple
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language and drug material.
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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.