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Affairs of the heart 'Cholera' makes poor adaptation of whimsical novel

As if the turgid big-screen adaptation of "Beloved" weren't proof enough that filmmakers should probably steer clear of the magical-realist fiction of Nobel laureates, along comes "Love in the Time of Cholera," Mike Newell's spectacularly ill-conceived take on the 1985 novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

If you've ever read one of Marquez's novels, with their elastic time frames and grandiose flights of whimsy, you might wonder how they could possibly be translated into a two-hour movie. Newell's solution -- which is to render "Cholera" as a kind of overwrought telenovella, complete with heavy breathing and amply exposed cleavage -- proves to be a crime against both literature and cinema.

The movie introduces us to Florentino Ariza (Unax Ugalde), who as a teenager falls helplessly in love with the beautiful Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), whose father (John Leguizamo) is dead set against his daughter marrying a peasant boy. Years later, Fermina marries the aristocratic Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt), even as the now-adult Florentino (Javier Bardem, considerably less memorable here than he is in "No Country for Old Men") pines obsessively for her.

This is familiar boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl stuff; and perhaps if Newell played the material straight, he might have crafted something akin to "The Notebook," a moldy but affecting and sincere tearjerker. The problem, however, is that the director is also determined to retain Marquez's offbeat flavor, where the bawdy, the surreal and the romantic bump up against one another.

This would be a difficult task for even the most adventurous directors, but Newell -- whose efficient, old-school style has resulted in some very good movies over the years, including the best Harry Potter movie, "The Goblet of Fire" -- doesn't have the temperament to pull it off. Most of "Love in the Time of Cholera" feels stilted and grotesque, an unfortunate mash-up of lesser Fellini and early Almodovar.

***

LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA

1 star (Out of 4)

STARRING: Javier Bardem, Giovanna Mezzogiorno and Benjamin Bratt

DIRECTOR: Mike Newell

RUNNING TIME: 129 minutes

RATING: R for sexual content, nudity and strong language.

THE LOWDOWN: A man spends a lifetime sleeping with hundreds of women, while pining for his one true love, who is married to another man.

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