You have to wonder if simply dressing up any clichéd film genre in period clothes would elicit responses as incongruously enthusiastic as the ones that Lasse Hallstrom's aggressively mediocre Casanova has been getting in many circles. Little more than a tired romantic comedy in wigs and corsets, Casanova proves that even the 18th century equivalent of Porky's can pull the wool over some critics' eyes.
Casanova is, like your average silly sex comedy, fitfully amusing, even if its plotting is more appropriate for a sitcom than a period epic. But Hallstrom, the force behind such antiseptic Oscar bait as The Cider House Rules and The Shipping News, holds things back in what looks like an attempt to retain that Oscar potential while still making the audience laugh. What's meant to evoke Shakespeare in Love ends up more often evoking Saved by the Bell.
The titular legendary lover, a real historical figure about whom many fictional tales have been weaved, is played by Heath Ledger, perhaps looking to prove his heterosexuality after Brokeback Mountain. Casanova is so good in the sack that he manages to bed an entire nunnery barely 10 minutes into the film, and his randy exploits are so well known that they've attracted the attention of the local Venetian authorities. Ordered to settle down with a respectable woman or leave his beloved Venice for good, Casanova quickly engages himself to a lust-filled virgin, but it's in proto-feminist Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller) that he finds his true match.
Thus we have the age-old opposites-attract rom-com gimmick, as the womanizing Casanova and headstrong Francesca have opposing philosophies but fall in love despite them. Not only is Casanova engaged to a woman he doesn't love, but Francesca, too, is inconveniently betrothed, to a rotund lard magnate (Oliver Platt, clearly having fun). This dilemma requires much wacky mistaking of identities and the foiling of an inquisitor played by Jeremy Irons like the period version of John Goodman in Revenge of the Nerds. By the time Casanova has to juggle two dates to the city's fancy ball, the whole thing has descended irredeemably into contrivance.
Along the way there is a bit of good-natured fun, and the set pieces, however creaky, are occasionally good for a chuckle or two. Ledger makes for an appealing womanizer, enough that it doesn't really bother you how smug he is. The same goes for Miller as the relatively self-righteous Francesca; these are two characters so charmingly self-absorbed that it's clear they're made for each other. Platt goes wild as the dopey rich guy who'll do anything if it might bring him female attention, and Irons lampoons his reputation for period seriousness with giddy abandon.
It's not really enough to hold the movie together though, and Hallstrom remains a relatively bloodless director, which makes his comedy as timid as his drama. It's possible that a truly bawdy and rambunctious farce could be built around Casanova and 18th-century Venice, but Hallstrom wasn't thinking hard enough to come up with anything that clever. Any historical accuracy seems purely incidental (the film's inquisition is only a shade less absurd than Monty Python's), and the nods to modern feminism and notions of monogamy feel forced (Bruni, naturally, is a wholly fictional character).
Other than the recognizable name, there's not all that much tying the film to the historical figure it purports to represent. It's merely an excuse to trot out familiar sex jokes without even delivering them with any bite. The overall effect is one of playing it safe, hardly something the real Casanova would have approved of.