Words fail me. There’s a certain kind of twisted logic to it: a novel about the persistence of love has turned, in the hands of a mediocre director, into a a campy, puffed-up piece of rotten Oscar bait, a movie of such boundless badness that it would take somebody with a Nobel Prize in literature to truly fathom the extent of its wretchedness. Gabriel García Márquez‘s 1985 novel is an impossibly sustained lyrical romance of unfulfilled love that stretches over decades, set among the lush vegetation and brimming cities of the Colombian coast. With his adaptation, Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) demonstrates that there’s more to Garcia Marquez than extravagant plotting: without the master’s ineffable touch, even his most fertile fictions turn to dust.

The story’s all there: in the late 19th century, the young clerk Florentino Ariza (Javier Bardem) falls in desperate love with the beautiful Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), but her father (John Leguziamo) interferes, and she marries Dr. Urbino (Benjamin Bratt) instead. Undaunted, Florentino decides to wait for her, no matter how long it will take. In the novel, Garcia Marquez fills the intervening years with outrageous and obsessively detailed anecdotes and labyrinthine detours rendered in extraordinary language, but Newell gives us nothing but a few dusty costumes, uninspired direction, and — instead of subtitles — Spanish accents that are supposed to communicate some sort of foreignness.

For the teenage Florentino, Newell uses a different actor (Unax Ugalde), but when the star-crossed lovers turn old, he just covers them with layers of ridiculous make-up. Were there no aging actors available that could have given the septuagenarian Fermina and Florentino a bit of desperately needed verisimilitude? Even worse, the film is completely tone-deaf when it comes to Garcia Marquez’s mingling of ruefulness and bawdiness. Newell plays all the wrong dramatic moments for laughs and mistrusts the romance to such a degree that he slathers every emotional cue with a syrupy score that makes identification with the characters impossible. As Fermina’s confidante, the wonderful Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) is not only wasted but, for the later part of the story, has to suffer the indignity of a fat suit.

But enough. It’s fruitless to count the ways in which Love in the Time of Cholera fails. Critics’ screenings here in New York are usually quiet affairs where you can get shushed for looking at the screen funny, but at the one I attended, people were talking back at the movie, Rocky Horror-style. Love in the Time of Cholera is scheduled to open on November 16.

Love in the Time of Cholera. Mike Newell, 2007. *