As Maisie Williams’ narration starts in “The Book of Love” — in her best raspy bayou drawl — over a scene of boaters finding a mysterious journal lost at sea, it’s clear what kind of film this is, or that it’s trying to be. It’s a newish genre, a tragicomedy awash in whimsical realism. “The Book of Love” isn’t quite magical, as it stays firmly grounded in this world, but there’s a healthy dose of the surreal from the actions of the offbeat characters.
Jason Sudeikis plays stiff New Orleans architect Henry, married to manic pixie dream girl Penny (Jessica Biel). An artist pregnant with their first child, she loves kung fu movies, plays little games with her husband in the morning, makes him wear purple sneakers and does things like hold up signs in the window exhorting him to “Be Bold.” But while Penny has more than enough personality traits and peccadilloes, Henry is defined only by his love and appreciation for her quirks and, subsequently, her absence in his life after her sudden death. There’s nothing interesting about him, and yet the entire film is about his journey as he navigates his life without her.
Adrift after her death, he pursues a friendship with teen street urchin Millie (Williams), who rummages around in his trash looking for supplies for a seafaring raft she’s building. Obsessed with stories like Kon-Tiki, Millie wants to build a raft to sail to the Azores, and Henry decides to help her (he also feels guilty about accidentally burning down her shed while reading the lost-at-sea journal). The quest offers him purpose, friendship, distraction and hopefully catharsis.
It’s just very hard to buy into Millie and Henry’s scheme. As she reveals her reasons for wanting to set sail, it’s clear that the raft is merely a symbol for her emotional journey, one that the dull Henry latches on to, in need of a strange woman to give his life purpose. The stakes and emotional thrust of a film such as this demand that they actually set sail, but it’s such a terrible and harebrained idea that, as an audience member, it’s impossible to side with Henry on this decision, though it’s played as a triumph.
You can’t help but compare “The Book of Love” to other films that share similar themes, settings and even scenes. Jake Gyllenhaal also sledgehammered his marital home in a fit of grief for his deceased wife in the similarly whimsical tragicomic drama “Demolition,” and the Louisiana setting, homemade raft and precocious moppet recalls the Sundance sensation “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” These comparisons make “The Book of Love” feel derivative, and Henry isn’t enough of a character to hang the film on. He’s surrounded by oddballs, but tertiary weirdos aren’t enough to make him fascinating.
Written by Robbie Pickering and Bill Purple, and directed by Purple, there are some heartfelt moments, especially from Williams, who ultimately pulls out a touching performance. Sudeikis does the best with what he’s given. Justin Timberlake composes a pretty score and performs a beautiful song toward the end. But for a film thats trying very hard to make you feel, it sure leaves you cold.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
‘The Book of Love’
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Rating: PG-13, for thematic content, language and drug material
Playing: Laemmle Noho 7, North Hollywood; Tristone Palm Desert 10, Palm Desert