After capturing the fancy of critics worldwide as a taciturn gay cowboy in Ang Lee's “Brokeback Mountain,” Heath Ledger is the last actor you'd expect to see charming his way past 18th-century bodices in Lasse Hallstrom's “Casanova.”
Still, it's a role to which Ledger is almost as well-suited, and his buoyant, dapper performance helps Hallstrom realize his vision of a bawdy romantic farce that you can toss away as easily as a Kleenex.
It's the year 1753, and we find legendary womanizer Lord Giacomo Casanova (Ledger) in his rakish prime, slinking around Venice with his faithful manservant (Omid Djalili), corrupting nuns and other chastity-sworn creatures while enjoying the legal protection of his friends and fans in high places. Casanova is such a celebrated enigma that he can anonymously watch dramatic re-enactments of his exploits in the city's plazas — sort of the 18th-century Italian equivalent of an NFL running back admiring his own likeness on an Xbox.
With poverty and the Catholic Church bearing down on him, Casanova agrees to clear his name by taking a wife. Inevitably, his engagement is waylaid by one Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller from “Layer Cake”), an amateur scientist and women's-lib advocate who would constitute his greatest conquest ever. So, using forged identities and other devilish subterfuge, Casanova goes about wooing Bruni while keeping her rich, Rubenesque fiance (Oliver Platt, in a fat suit) at bay and evading a spiteful Roman bishop (Jeremy Irons, as the Elmer Fudd of the Inquisition). Meanwhile, Casanova starts to feel a strange, foreign emotion. Could it be amore?
Hallstrom (“The Cider House Rules”), directing from a nimble, exuberant script by Jeffrey Hatcher and Kimberly Simi, floods the movie with stock physical humor — naughty business underneath tablecloth hems, klutzy canal-dunkings and exasperated, red-faced villains. “Casanova” boasts what has to be the most lighthearted Inquisition torture scene in the history of cinema. At one point, the humor becomes so broad that a character makes a crack about “traveling coach.”
It's a flighty load of horse-chips all right, but one that makes for a pleasant change of pace, like a slapstick “Tom Jones.” That is, if you can stomach the out-of-nowhere miracle finale, so random and wishful, there's only one term for it: Madre ex machina.