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Wednesday, December 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 23.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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A woman pursues her late husband's doppelgänger in The Face of Love
Double date
Harris and Bening rise above the mediocre writing.

In college I had not one but two campus doppelgängers, fellow students who looked a lot like me. One was a guy my then-girlfriend knew from high school. There was a funny moment in the dining hall when she ran up and all but threw her arms around him, thinking he was me. Awkward!

I mention this by way of introducing the unsettling topic of doubles and doppelgängers. In movies, the theme has been used in suspenseful thrillers, like Vertigo and Raising Cain, and in light dramas, like P.S., the enjoyable 2004 film in which a college admissions officer (Laura Linney) swoons for an applicant who looks like her ex-boyfriend (Topher Grace).

The new film The Face of Love aims somewhere in between, and misses. Annette Bening plays Nikki, a widow who's still grieving, years after her husband (Ed Harris) drowned while on vacation in Mexico. At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, she sees a guy (Ed Harris) who is identical to the dead man. His name is Tom, and he is a painting instructor. She insinuates herself into his life with a series of lies and evasions, and soon they are dating. She does more lying and evading to keep Tom away from her daughter (Jess Weixler) and her kindly neighbor (Robin Williams). Nikki realizes that what she is doing is deeply inappropriate, that the sight of Tom will horrify them.

I can imagine a fascinating character study based on this story. Grief can make people do strange things. But not much fascinates me about Nikki, a bourgeois Californian who inhabits a comfortable world of Priuses and farmers' markets. What's worse, director and co-writer Arie Posin cheapens this material by playing it for silly suspense. True, I admire Harris for delivering this line to Bening with a straight face: "I could take a bath in how you look at me."

One of the pleasures of a movie like this is watching good actors like Bening rise above mediocre writing. Harris' serene performance, especially, is a pleasure. I can't say the same for the work of Williams, whose line readings are curiously wooden. Let me put in a special word, though, for Weixler, who is familiar as a staff investigator on The Good Wife. When she finally realizes what is happening, she registers violent revulsion, an appropriate reaction to her mother's weird scheme. This feels real. Not much else does.

Posin reportedly based The Face of Love on events that actually happened to him. That reminds me of advice science-fiction author Harlan Ellison says he dispenses at workshops: "It doesn't matter if it's true; it matters if we believe it's true." Watching The Face of Love, I stopped believing.

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