Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Case Study No. 0801: Julia Reynolds

A Previous Engagement 41570
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When Seattle librarian Julia Reynolds (Juliet Stevenson) talks her unadventurous, jigsaw-obsessed husband Jack (Daniel Stern) into a once-in-a-lifetime vacation on the Mediterranean island of Malta she has a secret agenda: a date made twenty-five years earlier with her first love Alex (Tcheky Karyo). But when the sexy Frenchman actually shows up, insisting she's his true love, she discovers a side of her husband she never suspected.

The flat-footed insurance man sets out in search of his own Malta romance, and is soon dancing the salsa with an ex-chorus girl Grace (Valerie Mahaffey). With one last day in Malta, Julia must choose between the husband she never really knew and the man she's dreamt of for twenty-five years. A comedy for anyone who has ever wondered what might have been.



More tired than the fantasy it promotes, "A Previous Engagement" (2008) aims at middle-aged women with the subtlety of a pitch for bladder-control medication. Take a frustrated wife and her sexually inept husband, add a dollop of temptation (a French accent can't hurt), and plunk it all down in an exotic location. The world may roll on, but the dreams of the everyday housewife are as predictable as the tides.

When Julia (Juliet Stevenson), an uptight librarian, drags her stodgy husband, Jack (Daniel Stern), to Malta, the vacation is an excuse to rendezvous with her first love (Tcheky Karyo). Leaving Jack to fiddle with his cherished jigsaw puzzles, the erstwhile lovers bask in memories of transcendent sex and world-changing ambitions, but when Jack encounters a boozy divorcée (the marvelous Valerie Mahaffey), Julia feels the need to defend her territory.

"Do you know how much laundry I've done?" she whines. Enough to wash away her senses, clearly.

As a woman vacillating between her passion and her pension, Ms. Stevenson - whose gift for romantic yearning was cemented in "Truly, Madly, Deeply" - is ill used by a farcical script and cruel lighting. The unexpected hedonism of the ending fails to mitigate a dispiriting commitment to conventional wisdom: namely that, for a woman, the best place to find fulfillment is in the arms of a man. Sigh.

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