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The Boston Phoenix De'Ath Watch

Richard Kwietniowski's one-joke wonder.

By Gary Susman

MARCH 16, 1998: 

LOVE AND DEATH ON LONG ISLAND, Written and directed by Richard Kwietniowski, based on the novel by Gilbert Adair. With John Hurt, Jason Priestley, and Fiona Loewi. A Lions Gate Films release. At the Nickelodeon, the Kendall Square, and the Chestnut Hill and in the suburbs.

Love and Death on Long Island is a one-joke movie, but it's an awfully good joke. What begins as a laugh over a broad clash in taste deepens into a rich investigation of two opposing and fully articulated views of the world that, like people, may meet and touch while remaining unable to grasp each other.

The title is a bad pun on the name of the story's protagonist, Giles De'Ath (who keeps having to tell people it's pronounced "DAY-ahth"). As played by John Hurt, who always looks one hot meal away from death anyway, Giles is an Englishman little acquainted with life, at least as lived by most of us in the late 20th century: he's a middle-aged widower and writer who lives in self-imposed seclusion in a London house lined with books.

One day, when Giles locks himself out of the house, he passes the time until his housekeeper returns by venturing forth to the multiplex, where, he's heard, an adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel is playing. But he stumbles into the wrong screening room and is subjected to a teensploitation flick called Hotpants College 2. Before he can leave, he's been transfixed by the image of fresh-scrubbed teen pin-up Ronnie Bostock (Beverly Hills 90210's Jason Priestley). To Giles, Ronnie's beauty is a Pre-Raphaelite vision that outshines the actor's miserable milieu. He won't admit it to himself, but he's in love.

Giles feeds his obsession with Ronnie, furtively grabbing teen magazines for clippings (which he pastes in a scrapbook labeled "Bostockiana") and buying a TV and a VCR so he can watch all of Ronnie's mostly straight-to-video oeuvre. Finally he pursues his Adonis in the flesh, flying to New York and driving out to the Long Island hamlet where Ronnie lives.

After much lurking, he chances upon Ronnie's girlfriend, Audrey (Fiona Loewi), and finagles a visit to his beloved's home. Ronnie turns out to be a bit of a blank screen, which allows Giles to project onto him the fantasy that Ronnie could be a truly moving performer if only he had higher-caliber material -- which Giles, naturally, could write. The ambitious Ronnie buys into this dream without perceiving Giles's true sentiments. Audrey is not so guileless; her plans to marry Ronnie threaten to force Giles to admit his feelings, to himself as well as to Ronnie.

One doesn't have to recognize the literary parallels to Death in Venice, with old Aschenbach pining away for diffident youth Tadzio, or to Lolita, with Professor Humbert navigating the foreign landscape of pop culture to become closer to his young beloved, in order to laugh at the characters' profound discomfort. The film works best when everyone's yearnings remain unstated, and writer/director Richard Kwietniowski delays the moment of truth as long as possible. The result is a pace that can seem deliberate, but Kwietniowski is just building the joke by accretion of small details. The humor is tart but gentle; the scenes from Ronnie's crass movies are wicked parodies, but no crueler than the treatment of Giles's befuddlement with electronic devices, or his awkwardness when he dons a pair of sunglasses and rides in Ronnie's convertible.

Love and Death is too fond of both characters to be truly mean to either of them. Kwietniowski certainly couldn't have cast them any better. In Giles, Hurt has his juiciest role in years, and he inhabits it with deadpan drollery. Priestley has spoken in recent interviews about how little he relishes his obligation to star in a ninth season of 90210, and how he yearns for artier fare, like this movie; he sends up his own image delightfully.

Kwietniowski isn't really interested in resolving any of the dichotomies he sets up (highbrow versus lowbrow, Europe versus America, age versus youth, etc.) -- which is just as well because there's no mediating between Giles's desires and Ronnie's. As Giles drives back to New York, he should probably pay a visit to Woody Allen, who would remind him with a sigh that "the heart wants what it wants."

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