Harry Potter!
Cinema Signal:

Love Is Not a Game:
(But You Should Know the Odds)

. "Dot the I"

Game playing is the theme here, reality manipulation and emotional chess the moves. In its execution, the writing and directing by Matthew Parkhill is both awkward and clever, sometimes like the work of a first-timer (it is his first feature film), at other times rising to suspense and involvement. Twist upon twist limits what can be said about it and even telling that much is a risk.

The idea is to keep everyone guessing. Carmen (Natalia Verbeke), engaged to boyfriend Barnaby (smooth, oily James D'Arcy) and living with him in his posh London apartment, is having a last-fling dinner out with her girlfriends as a pre-nuptual tradition. Part of that tradition, supposedly, is for the bride-to-be to choose a man in the restaurant for a last, free kiss with someone other than her future husband.

Enter Kit (Gael Garcia Bernal) with two mindless sidekicks, Tom and Theo (Tom Hardy and Charlie Cox). They are seated at Carmen's big table due to overbooking. Carmen and Kit's eyes sweep over each other in sudden attraction. He's chosen. They kiss. Only, instead of a quick, embarrassed smooch to satisfy the requirements of the tradition, their lips linger and the kiss turns into screen passion. Point made. Carmen is conflicted, and that old "I can't decide between two men" gimmick rears its exasperrating head again. The waters buoying up the drama is shallow.

This sudden feeling for a stranger is proof of her limited affection for Barnaby and it's Kit's job to push the romantic possibilities to exploit it, all the while filming everything with a hand-held digital camera. His full-time devotion to recording events provides director Parkhill with a flow of intercuts from different perspectives, a device that grows excessive but which has something to do with the revelations that will eventually emerge as a plot twist and rescue effort.

Natalia Verbeke, an accomplished, beautiful Argentinean actress, fulfills all the requirements of a romantic lead who might become the center of a love triangle and the babe of a romantic comedy. She handles her indecisions as well as the script allows as she balances the solidity of marriage with a well-heeled admirer against the looser possibilities of following her emotions.

Bernal, a hot latin dynamo off "The Motorcycles Diaries," "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and "Bad Education," is sometimes credible as the babe magnet the concept calls for. But a certain shallowness creeps into the scenario from time to time to put his physical effectiveness in question. His sensitive vulnerability in a setting of machismo is part of his charm -- that little boy vulnerability. But charm goes only so far in a context that calls for an ability -- at least a promise of one -- to find the means to control physical and mental challenges. Here, he is just about keeping up with the flow, neither he nor the writer mastering it.

The crux of the matter is Carmen's deep feelings for Kit while her needs bob up and down in the shallows of indecision. As the challenges of her relationships progress, a certain impotence shows up, reducing Bernal's effectiveness and, hence, his appeal. We begin to wonder why she overlooks it and, of course, it has a lot to do with the screenplay.

We praise, however, the overall construct, even as awkwardness in the telling limits a feeling of complete satisfaction. Barnaby's game -- or, rather, Parkhill's -- is, at best, a draw.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Natalia Verbeke and Gael Garcia Bernal
The kiss that altered destiny

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