Lothario lost in the Venice canals

Lasse Hallström's picturesque 'Casanova' is too arch to jell as a farce.

According to a recent article in the Hollywood Reporter, "movies with the name 'Casanova' in the title have almost always been stinkers." Which doesn't bode well for "Casanova," starring Heath Ledger as the eponymous libertine.

Although "Casanova" is far from a stinker, I can't join in the chorus of praise for what is essentially a coy farce replete with arch performances and even archer dialogue.

Lasse Hallström's film begins promisingly enough: Romping though a nunnery, Casanova flees the Inquisition as he blows each of the nuns a kiss. Ledger has a sporty athleticism in these early scenes and he manages a passable English accent that's appreciably easier to understand than his gutteral Wyoming grunts in "Brokeback Mountain." (This has been a real yin-yang of a year for Ledger: first "Brokeback Mountain" and now this. One shudders to think what's up next for him. Playing a monk, perhaps?)

It soon becomes clear that his Casanova, unlike the many screen incarnations who preceded him, is a patsy for true love. It appears in the person of Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller), a precocious feminist who espouses the pro-woman philosophies of a male scribe (who, it turns out, is herself using a nom de plume). Casanova does what any red-blooded rake would do in her presence: He crumbles.

Hallström makes ample use of actual Venice locations, which give the film a resplendence it does not quite earn. He also piles on the period costuming, which clashes with the inauthenticity of the characters. They are all comic conceits of a low and obvious order. Jeremy Irons, for example, plays Pucci, the chief inquisitor, as if he were subsisting entirely on a diet of scenery. He chews it ravenously. (Irons spent time in these same environs in the Al Pacino showpiece "The Merchant of Venice" - he must know how to find his way around those mazelike canals by now.)

As Paprizzio, the "lard mogul" of Genoa, Oliver Platt has a bulbous fatuousness that soon wears out its welcome. The great Lena Olin, as Francesca's conniving matriarch, has very little to do except look exasperated. Olin is married to Hallström, who inexplicably is just about the only director to cast her anymore. Don't the other directors have eyes?

The one actor who seems unsullied by all the forced hoopla is Miller, who has a sexy-smart presence. In the hands of a more capable rowdy farceur - Richard Lester, who made the Three Musketeers movies, for instance - she might have really shined. In "Casanova," she steals what little there is to filch. Grade: C+

Rated R for some sexual content.

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