Great performances can trump great pretentiousness.
That’s the story on “The Face of Love,” an eye-rollingly improbable yarn that, thanks to some very fine acting and terrific dialogue, rises above its contrivances and gets under your skin.
In the opening moments of Arie Posin’s film we get scenes from the life of married couple Nikki (Annette Bening) and Garrett (Ed Harris). Theirs appears to be a perfect relationship, although we may be getting an overly rosy view.
Because before too long Garrett drowns while vacationing at a Mexican resort and Nikki is left to rebuild her life. Those flashbacks may represent her idealized view of her marriage.
Five years later Nikki is visiting an L.A. art musuem when she spots a man who looks exactly like Garrett (Harris again). At first she’s stunned, then curious.
She returns to the museum hoping to see him again, then begins stalking him. Discovering that the man — his name is Tom — teaches art at a local college, she approaches him about taking some private art lessons. One thing leads to another and soon they’re dating — although Nikki never lets Tom know that he’s her late husband’s doppelganger.
Full disclosure: This is an absurdly far-fetched idea. Even if you can buy the notion that Tom is Garrett’s exact double, Nikki’s behavior is, well, kinda sick.
And yet I found myself being sucked in.
For one thing, though the film starts out as Nikki’s story, halfway through it shifts its emphasis to Tom, a man still hurting from the breakup of his marriage a decade earlier and now cautiously hopeful that love might once again be his. Harris plays such a sympathetic character that we start to see him as the victim of Nikki’s unhealthy obsession.
At the same time, Bening deftly walks a fine line. We can understand her fascination with a man who, superficially at least, looks like her dead hubby. But is her manipulation of Tom a sign of longing or of something more disturbing?
The screenplay by Posin and Matthew McDuffie offers a couple of other perspectives that round things out. Robin Williams (in non-comic mode) is Nikki’s neighbor, an old family friend, now single, who loves her from a distance. Jess Weixler (she plays Robin on “The Good Wife”) is the grown daughter Nikki tries to keep in the dark about her new love (because it would seriously freak the girl out, right?). And Amy Brenneman has a brief but telling role as Tom’s ex, with whom he still maintains an affectionate relationship.
All of these elements effectively sell a very soapy idea. And it works. It may be far-fetched, but “The Face of Love” hooks us and keeps us tugging on the line.