Written by: Hannah Tran | May 18th, 2020
Ovid and the Art of Love (Esmé von Hoffman, 2019) ½ out of 4 stars.
In Esmé Von Hoffman’s Ovid and the Art of Love, Roman ruins are transformed into abandoned Detroit parking garages as the story of the poet Ovid is retold for a modern world. Dropping out of law school to become a “practical poet,” young Ovid, played by Corbin Bleu (High School Musical), finds himself in the middle of a political scandal after gaining popularity by delivering racy poems about how to find and attract women to underground poetry clubs. But as Ovid and the Art of Love tries to prove the similarities between these seemingly opposite worlds, all it does is prove that, perhaps, this is a comparison we could have gone without.
As quickly as Ovid drops out of law school, the film simultaneously forgets about the actual meaning of justice. In its first few minutes, it attempts to paint the similarities of modern-day America and ancient Rome with its depiction of Ovid’s ignorant sureness of his safety in a state plagued with relatable issues ranging from wealth disparity to wars overseas. It quickly forgets about these problems, however, shifting to a more specific focus on the Roman government’s strict morality laws and the “injustice” that is Ovid’s inability to have an affair with a married woman. Women in this world, moreover, are merely an endnote to Ovid’s selfish goals. While the film pretends to address its own sexism, it never allows the time for its characters to actually do so.
The confusing story of Ovid is made worse by a clichéd framing device that the film itself quickly forgets about. What initially sounds like an imaginative fusion of past and present turns out not to have the imaginative gall to even allow this fusion to exist in its own reality. Instead, it forces a shallow bookend in the form of a child projecting the events of the film onto his surroundings as he reads Ovid’s work for a school assignment. Perhaps this would be more effective if only the filmmakers had the sense to draw some sort of meaningful connection between the child and Ovid besides their shared geography. Perhaps it would also be more effective if it didn’t make me question so much who this film is meant for. Its silly dialogue and stereotypical characters feel straight out of children’s TV, making it feel both too childish for adults and too adult for kids.
Ovid wants so desperately to be Hamilton, but it lacks the intellectual and creative toolkit necessary to even attempt to do so. Its uneven editing and complete lack of rhythm make its best efforts at establishing its own style fall flat. So many of the scenes are dragged out until anything playful or interesting within them inevitably fizzles. Worst of all, its attempts at edginess, with its breakage of the fourth wall and music-video editing style, lack the consistency, commitment, and sheer coolness to make them feel earned.
If anything, this film is about the power of dreaming big. This only makes it harder to say that I wished the filmmakers had dreamt a little smaller. While the parallel between the two worlds that Ovid has to offer was what initially drew me to this film, I can’t help but feel its overall message of these parallels would have been more effective if it had been more of a straightforward retelling. It’s difficult to see past the Halloween-level costumes, the half-hearted production design, and the commercial-esque cinematography. It’s even worse, however, to look past these things and still find that there’s nothing there.