Mad Love: Antonia Bird’s Amour Fou Starring Chris O’Donnell and Drew Barrymore

Whatever else is wrong with Mad Love, yet another variation on amour fou and love on the run, the sensual acting of its two charismatic leads, Chris O’Donnell and Drew Barrymore, is beyond reproach.

Decidedly not a typical summer fare, this powerful, often steamy romance might achieve some moderate success with the twentysomething crowd, if and when they want a break from the big-scale blockbusters. Arguably, pic would have fared better had it been released after the megahit Batman Forever, in which O’Donnell plays the major role of Robin.

In her third outing, following the festival hits Safe and Priest, director Antonia Bird shows that she is attracted to intimate dramas exploring eccentric individuals who find themselves in emotional crossroads that challenge their very identity–and lifestyle. Mad Love, based on Paula Milne’s original script, examines the passionate affair between Matt Leland (Chris O’Donnell) and Casey Roberts (Drew Barrymore), two very different high school seniors.

Set in Seattle, story begins as Matt observes in his telescope the eccentric behavior of Casey, who lives with her rigid yuppie parents on the other side of the lake. On the verge of adulthood, Matt lives a quiet life with his single dad and twin siblings, but he’s never recovered from his mom’s desertion of the family when he was 9. Matt is established as a serious young man, preparing for a college career. But its’ also clear that he’s never been in love– and never got laid.

As soon as he lays his eyes on the beautiful Casey, a free, uninhibited spirit, who’s exactly his opposite, Matt becomes captivatingly absorbed, willing to abandon everything he’s worked for to pursue his fervent liaison. In the opening sequences, helmer takes her time in establishing the opposite personalities of her protagonists and their respective families.

The movie gains momentum in its second part, effectively capturing the wild, spontaneous and combustible intensity of Matt and Casey’s first love. Theirs is a heat that consumes everything in its path, most of all reason and common sense. The middle section, when the two hit the road to New Mexico, is exciting–the strong chemistry and steam generated by O’Donnell and Barrymore, who have never looked more sensual, add authentic credibility.

Still, it takes Matt too long to see what the audience has already observed, that Casey is not just irrationally rebellious and a bit dangerous, but downright manic depressive. Pic’s last chapter is a bit dreary, with Casey going from one hysterical outburst to another, until finally Matt decides to contact her parents and release her from his life.

Chief problem is overly familiar material, bringing to mind such classic American youth movies as Rebel Without a Cause, Bonnie and Clyde and other variations on “love on the run” of sensitive, misunderstood kids. Ultimately, Matt and Casey, and especially their parents, come across as types rather than freshly observed individuals.

Psychiatrists, however, will like this story, for at once Hollywood doesn’t sentimentalize or romanticizes mental problems, as was the norm with David and Lisa, Benny & Joon, and most recently Don Juan DeMarco; pic makes a strong case for professional treatment and even hospitalization.

Regrettably, the relatively upbeat ending doesn’t ring true, negating the story’s more dominant darker tones and ambiguity; like Priest, film neatly resolves all of its dilemmas. But unlike Priest, in which Bird found shards of humor to counteract the heavy melodramatics, Mad Love is sober to the point of being somber.

That said, in momets, Mad Love is immensely likeable. A disco sequence, where the two discover their mutual attraction is visually a stunner. And an early scene in which Casey, trying to call Matt’s attention during an SET exam, pulls the school’s fire alarm is endearingly spontaneous.

Bird is more successful with her actors. O’Donnell, who has never looked more handsome, meets impressively his greatest dramatic challenge to date. As she showed in Boys on the Side, Barrymore, who continues to improve with every film, is a promising performer with a considerable age. If, despite its faults, film connects with the twentysomething, O’Donnell and Barrymore may emerge as new heartthrobs of their generation. Of the supporting cast, standout work comes from Joan Allen, as Casey’s sympathetic mother.

As lensed by Fred Tammes and designed by David Brisbin, Mad Love, shot in the contrasting landscapes of Seattle and New Mexico, is extremely pleasing to look at. Special kudos go to Eugenie Bafaloukos (Miami Blues, Reality Bites), whose costumes feature both stars at their sexiest.