There’s an idyllic neighborhood in New Jersey, with idyllic houses, an idyllic girls’ academy where idyllic girls harbor idyllic crushes, an idyllic ice cream parlor, idyllic lawns, idyllic roads and everything idyllic that could possibly be stuffed into one movie, especially one that must be so idyllic in order to make ensuing trouble seem shocking. If I could, I’d simply review “Book of Love” based on William Rexer II’s cinematography, which is so calm, soothing, and softly lit, from porches to rain and school swimming pools, that Rexer has either lived in a town like this when he was younger or intricately knows the feelings that can be derived from cinematography. Alas, he follows the commands of writer/director Alan Brown, who insists upon the story of a seemingly happy couple, Elaine (Frances O’Connor) and David Walker (Simon Baker, who shows that a man can have emotions without looking soppy), she supposedly a writer and he a history teacher at Royce Academy, a private girls’ school. One of his students, Heather (Bryce Dallas Howard) insists to her friends that he’s merely an inspiration to her, but they teasingly fire back that she’s obviously in love with him. It doesn’t matter, especially when Chet Becker (Gregory Smith), a 16-year-old without a mother and a father who works nights, comes into their lives.
Brown stealthily places seeds of doubt about the marriage throughout his screenplay. Both have been to Cambodia for no other reason than to have it figure into David’s curriculum, just so he has something to teach, and at the end, where it doesn’t matter at all and in fact is too coincidental. It could have been a trip to France that could have affected them that much, though Elaine takes to it less than David does. For now, this is a black-and-white world. They both seem to love each other, but there’s one moment where David points out to Elaine that “simultaneously” and “at the same time” are redundant, when she’s talking about Chet, whom they’ve unsuspectingly taken in almost as a foster son, and she looks at him for a brief moment, almost with a look that says, “Where has the younger David gone?” and goes back to her reading. Chet has a lot to say, a lot that he dreams about and Elaine is impressed by that, taken aback, because Chet embodies what she doesn’t have anymore, that freedom, those dreams, the idea of not having to be settled right away, to go here and there, to work at jobs for little money and even enjoy it. Doesn’t matter that Elaine’s 28 and Chet’s 16. All that matters are ideals. Brown makes sure the age isn’t a factor by how closely he frames his actors. Subtly, he overshadows our thoughts. He doesn’t want the obvious to take hold during his movie.
Then, the deed. Elaine is unsure at first, but then gets into it. Chet likes the company of Elaine and David, but he sure likes Elaine even more. He’s not predatory, however. He doesn’t come on to the scene with a sharp, knowing glance, ready to strike when the opportunity’s available. She likes him and that’s that. He likes here because she’s different, obviously, because she’s older and full of far different thoughts than teens his age could supply him with. But then there’s the aftermath, which includes lesbian friends of David who want him to be the sperm donor for the child they hope to have, tensions between all three of them, and questions, questions, and more questions as to who the true victim is of this most unusual tryst. Simon Baker has his best moments when he walks into his classroom late, attempts to erase the board (with an eraser that won’t erase, Brown’s not-so-subtle symbolism that his wife’s indiscretion will not leave his mind), realizes he has forgotten his students’ papers, and in the next shot, breaks down in the bathroom, his face slowly scrunching up in realization, and he cries. And Baker is affecting in this one moment. He’s been a good man, studious, faithful to his wife, and how could this happen to him?
Is Elaine the victim too? She ends up at Chet’s house twice, but nothing doing on a second round between the two. She doesn’t understand why she did it and neither do we, Brown’s way of leaving the decision up to us, even though it’s so obviously spread among the three. They’re all affected by it, Chet too with the threat of losing contact with the couple (even though a very surreal trip to Orlando brings even more tension among them, just a way to bring them together after going through separate hells for 20 minutes), but by this time, Brown’s concerned with getting all symbolism through, be it from a sprinkler head on the lawn, to a line of dialogue spoken when David says to Chet that they should really go on that trip to Disney World as he did promise him. David thinks out loud about all the sections of the theme parks and Chet interjects with, “There is no yesterdayland.” Smooth and subtle, as if we didn’t already know that these people were going through emotional turmoil which can’t be changed.
Brown steps the right way from the beginning in establishing the town, these three people, David’s school, and the neighborhood, and he cleverly avoids upfront confrontation, such as when David is asked by one of the students if his wife is pretty and then later when another student is taking his picture and asks, “Do you think Heather’s cute?” Plus, he feels enough drama coming from the aftermath of the tryst that he doesn’t feature the moment where Elaine tells David that she had sex with Chet. We join them after it’s been said. However, the rest is tricky and Brown can’t make it all work, especially when a knife ends up in David’s leg in Orlando after a brawl of the appropriately dramatic kind. By then, Brown simply moseys through the symbolism he’s apparently always wanted to film and leaves us stranded. Everything in “Book of Love” is beautiful to look at, but beauty only goes so far when you can’t even get further into characters that were once understood and nicely understated.