Sophie (Gia Carides), crippled as a result of polio, has a richly erotic fantasy life which she pours into the romance novels she writes. In the library one day, suavely shady jeweler Eddie (Anthony LaPaglia) overhears her creative musings and is instantly smitten with her. Sophie is likewise attracted but, fearful of his reaction, attempts to keep her affliction a secret from him. They lead each other on a merry chase that involves a lot of farcical coitus interruptus, some magnificently photogenic stolen gems, Sophie breaking her one good leg, Eddie nearly losing his tongue and ability to speak, and the absolute disgruntlement of his bitchy fiance, Gloria (Rebecca Gibney).
At first blush, Paperback Romance may seem just another over-the-top farce from Down Under. Yet, despite its wildly improbable plot, its general tone is one of a becalmed hush, full of wondering discovery, highly suitable for romance. Writer/director Ben Lewin was himself a childhood victim of polio, which no doubt accounts for its blessedly unmawkish treatment. Never once does either he or Carides attempt to wring tears from Sophie's hobbling about on crutches. One truly gets an insider's view of what it must be like to live with such a handicap, the daily challenges and idiocies one must cope with, like strangers endlessly querying: 'Skiing accident?' This clear-eyed presentation is both bracing and genuinely moving. Lewin's a wry, witty writer, as well. Eddie and Sophie's romantic repartee may be only a touch away from the monosyllabic, but they pack a world of nuance and sexy implication into their simplest, surprising exchanges. ('You were supposed to be at a wedding,' she tells him at the eventual, rosy climax. 'I left early,' the reluctant groom replies.) At the beginning, he woos her averse self with maybe the best pickup line in movies ever: 'Conversation with you would be the most exquisite form of foreplay.' Lewin is an unabashed romantic, but, thankfully, a dry, not drippy, one. In the scenes involving Eddie's dubious involvement with purloined jewels, the film takes on some of the shimmer of lovely '30s romantic comedies like Trouble in Paradise and Desire, with their canny, straight- and double-talking Lubitschean lovers sexily palavering over gleaming caches.
Carides, looking like a somewhat older Christina Ricci, is highly empathic as ruthlessly self-sufficient Sophie. She accomplishes something rare in that she actually makes you believe in the creative impetus and inspiration she derives from random real-life situations for her bodice-ripping work. What she writes may not be Chekhov, but a true creative impulse is most definitely present. LaPaglia is something of an amalgam of De Niro and Keitel, with a courtly sexiness that's all his own. He incarnates the kind of slightly brutish male ego that can be devastating to certain types of hopeless romantics. (So often that brooding mien merely masks a void, but, here, LaPaglia comes up a real lover.) Together, he and Carides share a darkly mordant chemistry that is as singular as it is convincing. ('It's the Miracle of Life,' they tell each other at certain revelatory moments, and damn if they don't carry this stuff off rather beautifully.) Gibney is a delightfully glamorous wild card. She resembles the second, soon-to-be-ex-Mrs. Donald Trump and laps up every tasty opportunity here for flashy witchiness. Even Jacek Koman, as a very stereotyped Russian, rather morbid and unwanted admirer of Sophie, is appealing, especially when he tells her she reminds him of 'a character out of Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Gogol, Mayakovsky, no not Mayakovsky...' Photography, production and design and music are nicely unobtrusive, contributing to an overall handsomeness. (Although LaPaglia is momentarily undone by one of those hideous, collarless, lapel-less Steven Seagal tuxedos in the wedding scene.) I also could have done without Sophie's flamboyantly staged, crippling fall into the arms of a shopping-mall opera singer. For that brief moment, I feared the film's turning into another raucously overbaked Strictly Ballroom or Hotel De Love.