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Movie Review

An elegant spin on a romantic carousel

From left: Morgan Freeman, Greg Kinnear, and Radha Mitchell star in Robert Benton's 'Feast of Love.' From left: Morgan Freeman, Greg Kinnear, and Radha Mitchell star in Robert Benton's "Feast of Love." (Peter Sorel)

There's a lot of sex in "Feast of Love": in beds, against sliding glass doors, under the stars on the 50-yard-line of a football stadium. The bodies are athletic, young, and white, and yet this is not the sport sex we usually see in Hollywood movies. It's the sex of adulation. Sometimes the director Robert Benton goes heavy on the hydraulic positioning, but his movie is scarcely mechanical.

"Feast of Love" is his easiest movie to like since 1994's "Nobody's Fool," and it's immediately homey. Watching the film's carousel of romantics float around the lush Portland, Ore., setting (a completely different universe from Gus Van Sant's marvelously unwashed locales), you might want to pack your bags and start looking for a place there to live.

Whatever you do, be wary of the real estate services of Diana (Radha Mitchell). She might find you an incredible house. But she might also break your heart, the way she does to Bradley (Greg Kinnear), the sunny, needy, mildly narcissistic coffee shop owner she seduces while helping him find a new nest after his wife (Selma Blair) leaves him for a woman.

Diana winds up dating Bradley but really she happens to be in love with a married man, David (Billy Burke), whose dark nature is the opposite of Bradley's. What they have qualifies as a little crazy (they like pushing each other's buttons) and Diana herself is a piece of work. She blows into the movie during the one spell of bad weather in a gorgeous trench coat and gradually evolves into Kathleen Turner in "Body Heat." But the movie's tone is capacious enough to harmonize her infelicities with the idealistic passion of Oscar (Toby Hemingway) and Chloe (Alexa Davalos), the young couple who fall for each other the minute she walks into Bradley's coffee shop, where Oscar works; and with the seasoned, formidable love between Harry and Esther, who are played by Morgan Freeman and Jane Alexander.

"Feast of Love" has been keenly adapted by Allison Burnett from Charles Baxter's novel. He's rejiggered the "Rashomon"-like structure into something that worked on the page but might have seemed contrived on screen, and Benton keeps it oscillating elegantly.

The director turns 75 tomorrow. He's been making movies about human decency and the essential need for people to get along for almost four decades ("Kramer vs. Kramer," "Places in the Heart") at a patient rate of about three every 10 years. And nothing in this new movie should work. It's about people walking into rooms and falling instantly in love with each other; it's full of pronouncements, platitudes, and coincidences. Harry, who, for the movie's purposes, is Bradley's best friend, hangs out in his cafe a lot, dispensing solicited advice, and happens to live next door to Bradley's new place. You don't say!

And yet because "Feast of Love" is ardently acted (even by someone as emotionally monochromatic as Burke) and so unself-consciously made, it seems like a work of nature. The predicted events and predictable sentimental touches (the word "foyer" tacked to a wall is meant to make you well up and it does) have an organic emotional potency.

Even Morgan Freeman's wisest-man-in-the-history-of-wisdom routine feels exactly perfect for this movie. There's a moment when he breaks down in tears that makes you want to break down in tears; and another, when he tells Kinnear (who's very good, too) to shut up, that might be one of the most unexpectedly funny things Freeman's ever done. For once, he's not playing God or being cool. He's not being asked just to be Morgan Freeman. You'll probably never again want to see him be unaccountably holy, gratuitously presidential, or simply nonhuman again. It just seems a waste, since he's one of the best human beings the movies have.

In "Feast of Love," Benton treats Freeman like another besotted soul in this deceptively controlled lovers' universe. If the cosmos is pulling Harry and everyone he knows together, the miracle of the movie is that we never see the strings.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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Feast of Love

Directed by: Robert Benton

Written by: Allison Burnett, adapted from the novel by Charles Baxter

Starring: Morgan Freeman, Greg Kinnear, Radha Mitchell, Alexa Davalos, Toby Hemingway, Billy Burke, Selma Blair, and Jane Alexander

At: Boston Common, Fenway, Boston, and suburbs

Running time: 102 minutes

Rated: R (strong sexual content, nudity and language)

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