Casanova's Venetian getaway: Why is it that movies about libertines are so frequently, and depressingly, devoid of eroticism?

"Casanova" is pretty good fun for most of its hour-and-three-quarters running time, something you wouldn't get from many of the reviews - and fun is something you don't get at all if you have the misfortune to sit down before the brown fog of "The Libertine," coming soon with Johnny Depp as the Earl of Rochester, England's answer to Casanova. But although the peripatetically priapic 18th-century Italian lover is first encountered here lurking about a particularly friendly nunnery, the movie treats his amatory escapades as low comedy rather than sensual adventures, and averts its gaze as quickly as possible.

In this, as in many other ways, "Casanova" shows little interest in exploring the adventures of the real Giacomo Casanova and the multifaceted figure he cut in the Europe of his day. Which is OK, I guess. Comedy is not in such oversupply that we can afford to scorn so sprightly a specimen as this Touchstone release, filmed in never-more-photogenic Venice with director Lasse Hallström maintaining the pacing and tone with an easy hand.

Hallström has been something of a dispiriting case in recent years. First brought to international attention in the mid-'80s for his droll childhood fable "My Life as a Dog" (a rare instance of a foreign-film director nabbing an Academy Award nomination), the Swedish filmmaker made the transition to Hollywood with his gentle, offbeat touch intact but few notably good movies to show for it (the clearest exceptions being "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" in 1993 and "Something to Talk About," 1995). In the late '90s he was drafted to become part of the Miramax Oscar machine, which trivialized his talent in corporately misbegetting such pretentious commodities as "Chocolat" and "The Shipping News." Other critics might include "The Cider House Rules" in that litany of shame, but for me the wall-to-wall splendid performances carried the day, transcending the Weinsteinian hollowness at the production's center.

I can't say that there's much of anything at the center of "Casanova," as lighter-than-air as the very pretty balloon that bears Casanova (Heath Ledger) and his 18th-century-feminist adversary/soulmate Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller) into the luminous night sky over Venice at the height of Carnivale. But the script - by Jeffrey Hatcher and Kimberly Simi, from a screen story by Simi and Michael Cristofer - is clever, and as steadily amusing as the copious production values are handsome.

This (fictional) episode in the great lover's colorful career confronts him with several crises. For one thing, despite the patient protection of the Doge (Tim McInnerny), Italy's most celebrated sinner stands in serious jeopardy of termination with extreme prejudice by the censorious Mother Church, in the person of a dogged Inquisitor (Jeremy Irons, looking as if he were perpetually sucking alum). For another, he may have met his match in Signorina Bruni, who, besides formidable feistiness and an assertive intelligence, just may be able to out-parry him with an epée. That she spends half her time passing herself off as a man, and a better man than Giacomo, only compounds the challenge - though the script's show of saucily exploring gender roles is more fan dance than seriously developed theme.

There are, however, enough confused or knowingly swapped identities to keep the farce frothy. Francesca is the secret author of a widely read treatise on women's rights, with a hired front man to sign his name to the document. But as complications multiply and crisscross, Casanova himself gets tagged as the radical feminist writer, all while pretending to be Papprizzio "the lard king of Genoa" - a mountain of lard himself, safely sidelined by Casanova and his servant, and encased in his own product in a dubious effort to shed some weight. The real Papprizzio is played by Oliver Platt, perhaps the most surefire crowd-pleasing character actor we've got these days. His reward is a series of surprisingly adroit cartoonish sight gags, and the unexpected yet wholly winning opportunity to romance the divine Lena Olin (Mrs. Hallström, as it happens), playing Francesca's mother. Add British-Iranian comic Omid Djalili as Casanova's valet and co-conspirator, and you'll be in way better company at "Casanova" than at any of the flailing contemporary comedies released in the recent holiday season.[[In-content Ad]]