Take a well-regarded novel, an epic historical setting, an Academy Award-winning actor, the director of a recent Best Picture winner, and the current flavor-of-the-year actress, and you get “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” one of the year’s most embarrassing big-budget miscalculations.
Shockingly enough, director John Madden’s would-be prestige project has bigger problems than that inexplicable It Girl Penelope Cruz, whose awkward and altogether unimpressive display here further greases her wheels on the fast track to the overhyped starlet scrap heap. No, much more blame goes to a comically miscast Nicolas Cage as the captain of the title, a warmhearted Italian soldier whose oh-so-seductive strummings of the mandolin earn him–or should I say “curse him with”–the affections of Pelagia (Cruz), the homeliest woman in all of WWII-era Greece. With tensions escalating between the Greek citizens and their fascist occupiers, and war sweeping over the rest of the continent, will Corelli and Pelagia’s love survive?
But wait a second–how, why, and when exactly do these two fall for each other in the first place? Don’t ask screenwriter Shawn Slovo, who adapted Louis de Bernières’ novel. When Corelli first moves in with Pelagia and her doctor father (John Hurt), his presence is annoyance to her–an easily understandable reaction, given how painful Cage’s faux accent is. One night Corelli plucks a few strings on that magical mandolin of his, and suddenly Pelagia’s swooning, and her existence-justifying feelings for her intended (Christian Bale) have been completely erased. Another night, Corelli scopes out Pelagia doing a tango, and he’s all hot and bothered. On yet another night, Corelli strums an especially sappy tune, declares it “Pelagia’s Song,” and the next morning they’re doing the naked horizontal lambada in the forest. Huh?
Cage and Cruz are as flat as decades-old Coca-Cola together (which is probably proof positive of their alleged off-screen affair). But even worse, the pair fails to connect with the audience. Corelli is supposed to be a sensitive romantic, but Cage’s wide-eyed and slurred portrayal is less soulful than stoned; Cruz’s misbegotten idea of conveying dramatic weight is yelling her lines as loudly as possible. The only believable sense of romance coming from the entire picture is, literally, the picture–John Toll’s cinematography lovingly captures the natural splendor of the Greek locations. It’s too bad the two “lovebirds” have to come in and ruin what would’ve been a gorgeous travelogue film.