Two-Faced, by Aaron Pinkston
The Face of Love sets itself up for an uphill climb from the start. Within the first five minutes, through the use of foggy flashbacks, our main character has already become an emotionally shattered (one could say “mopey”) shell, aimlessly shuffling around an immaculately decorated house. We are so quickly introduced to Nikki and Garrett before his death that there isn’t much sense of their life together and how the loss would truly affect her — of course, losing one’s husband would be completely devastating, but The Face of Love doesn’t do anything to build a strong foundation in its story. Luckily, though, we have Annette Bening and Ed Harris, who can bring plenty of gravitas with little effort.
After the brief introduction to Nikki and her struggle with becoming a widow, the film jumps ahead five years to a point where she is finally ready to begin moving on. Part of this process is stopping by an art museum that her and her husband frequented, which leads her to Tom, a man who bears a striking resemblance to her former husband (an exact resemblance, really, as both roles are played by Harris without any changes in appearance). Their chance encounter leads to a sweet romance hindered by Nikki’s reluctance to be open about her initial interest in Tom. If this plotting works for you, it is a really nice metaphor for finding love after tragically losing it — if not, perhaps its an obvious one. Even as the film ultimately loses subtlety by the end, there is a lot about human relationships and the baggage we carry around that rings true.
This probably wouldn’t have been possible without Bening and Harris in the main roles, as they have really great rapport. Because of the plot’s odd nature, the actors have to play like they are just meeting but imbued with an entire history — harder yet, a history that we don’t get the privilege of seeing in this film. Even when the soundtrack suggests a certain seriousness, their tone is comfortable, like old friends more than lovers. Bening has the meatier role with more range of emotion, but Harris is particularly good here. Once the truth inevitably comes out, she provides the meltdown while his response is what is truly heartbreaking. This is as good as I’ve seen Harris in a long while and a bit of a different role for him, allowing him to show a softer side.
The film’s biggest misstep comes with a shift to something of a Vertigo-inspired psychological thriller. It never fully commits to that, but as Nikki and Tom’s relationship fully blooms and her lie begins to really dig in, The Face of Love is more sinister than sweet. Overall, the film is pretty slim (less than 90 minutes in total) which makes Nikki’s slip into madness feel all the more rushed — there isn’t much of a line between her odd curiosity over Tom and complete obsession.
Two major supporting characters feed into this unsatisfying transition: Nikki’s daughter and neighbor. At some point, the film starts playing a game in which Nikki tries desperately to keep Tom away from them, which moves an interesting plot into well-trod ground. The neighbor, played by Robin Williams, has long had unrequited affection for Nikki, which further complicates things when he finds out about a possible new beau. His performance isn’t wholly bad, though he does play a bit too earnest in comparison to his co-stars. What’s more, the plot point is completely unnecessary, stringing along to try and add some sort of conflict. The conflict with Nikki’s daughter is much more substantive and actually leads to a pretty explosive conclusion near the film’s climax.
Despite the pitfalls in the third act, there is enough in The Face of Love that works. It perhaps tries to do too much, perhaps without enough time to build everything correctly — if the film was 10-15 minutes longer, some of the problems could have been handled. The transition is rough, but the film’s end is compelling enough on the strength of its performers. As it stands, a softer path wouldn’t have been as interesting, but certainly more satisfying.