2003 TIFF Update #5: "Bumps in the Road"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Monday, September 8, 2003

Seeing a bad or mediocre movie at a film festival isn't as deflating an experience as it can be to catch something of sub-par quality at the local multiplex. That's because, in the high-volume cinematic gorging that represents a festival, forgettable fare is immediately forgotten. The aftertaste of a disappointing film lasts only until the opening credits for the next feature start to roll - in some cases, that may be less than an hour. It's only the good movies (or the atrocious ones) that leave a lasting impact. That's the nature of the beast. In two weeks, I'll only be able to remember a handful of titles from this year's festival (including, but not limited to The Barbarian Invasions, Lost in Translation, and The Cooler, all of which I have previously discussed). The three movies in today's column will be forgotten. These are films for which I had reasonably high expectations, but that didn't make the cut. They were bumps in my 2003 TIFF cinematic road.

Disappointment #1 comes from writer/director/editor John Sayles, the so-called "Father of American Independent Cinema." Since he started in this business in 1980, he has never been beholden to a distributor. His style is relaxed, but his subject matter is frequently timely and intense, and it's virtually impossible to guess what he's going to do next. Sayles doesn't like repeating himself, and he frequently chooses subjects that will challenge both himself (as a filmmaker) and his audiences. The results have been such memorable pictures as Matewan, Men with Guns, Lone Star, and Limbo. His latest, Casa de los Babys may have the unwelcome distinction of being the worst movie to date to arrive in theaters with Sayles' name next to the director credit.

To a certain extent, Casa de los Babys follows the Sayles blueprint, albeit with some important deviations. The storyline is not tightly focused and has a political slant, there are a large number of characters, and the pacing is languid. However, this is an oddly short motion picture (95 minutes), and the brevity of the running time allows for minimal character and plot development. Indeed, we are only getting to know these people when it's time for the end credits to roll. The characters all start out as stereotypes, and 1 1/2 hours is just about enough time to let them begin to take on aspects of individuality. It's as if we're seeing only the first half of a typical Sayles movie. In the end, I was left wondering where the rest of it was.

The story concerns a group of young, infertile American mothers who travel down to Mexico to adopt babies. They stay at a place referred to by the locals as the "Casa de los Babys," and are forced to remain there - in some cases for months - as the red tape is cleared. The six would-be mothers we meet are a diverse lot. There's the ex-alcoholic fundamentalist Christian (Mary Steenburgen), the financially strapped woman who's running out of time and money (Susan Lynch), the lesbian (Lili Taylor), the insecure rich wife (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the troubled physiotherapist (Daryl Hannah), and the pushy, pugnacious Northerner (Marcia Gay Harden).

Things might have been all right if Sayles had confined himself to these women and their difficulties, but he has a much larger canvas in mind. So, in addition to these six stories, he piles on no less than a half-dozen sub-plots. There are three homeless boys who roam the streets begging and stealing. A young woman cares for her younger sisters by holding down a housekeeping job at the hotel. A pregnant 15-year old is being forced to give up her baby for adoption. An unemployed man buys a lottery ticket while searching for work. A revolutionary does odd-jobs at the hotel, but, when it comes to his politics, he proves to be all talk and no action. And a lawyer works the political process to get the most money possible out of his American clients.

One can't fault the actors for having trouble conveying their characters. They do fine jobs despite the limited screen time. If there's a surprise in the cast, it's Daryl Hannah. Not normally known as a dramatic heavyweight, she brings enough heft to the part to convey a sense of genuine tragedy. Also noteworthy is Susan Lynch, although this is primarily for a scene in which she pours out her heart in a lengthy monologue to a housekeeper who doesn't understand English. The others, particularly Maggie Gyllenhaal and Lili Taylor, are criminally underutilized. (Recalling Gyllenhaal's work in last year's Secretary makes it doubly annoying that Sayles uses her so little.)

Casa de los Babys contains its share of compelling ideas, and the central theme could make for a thought-provoking motion picture. Unfortunately, by truncating every aspect of the story, Sayles conveys only a hint of what this movie might have been. Admittedly, mediocre Sayles is still watchable, but, relative to expectations, Casa de los Babys is a disappointment of significant proportions, and, as it turns out, not really worthy of the exalted space carved out for it in my festival schedule.

Another disappointing, but still watchable (if only barely), motion picture is Carl Franklin's Out of Time, a moody crime story featuring Denzel Washington, Eva Mendes, and Sanaa Lathan. Franklin, best known for his edgy, atmospheric thrillers (One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress) has the "atmospheric" part of the equation working here, but not the "edgy" aspect. Out of Time is a generic thriller with nary a surprise in store for the experienced film noir viewer. Worse still, the central motive underlying the crime doesn't stand up to cursory inspection.

Out of Time introduces us to Matt Whitlock (Washington), the Chief of Police of Banyan Key. Currently in the process of divorcing his wife, Detective Alex Whitlock (Eva Mendes), Matt has embarked upon an affair with a married woman. Ann (Sanaa Lathan), Matt's high-school sweetheart, is wed to abusive ex-quarterback Chris (Dean Cain), but is willing to renew her romance with her ex-flame. One day, Ann confesses to Matt that she is seriously ill with cancer. Her only hope is to travel to Europe and receive experimental treatments - a trip she doesn't have the money for. Eager to save her, Matt steals $485,000 in drug money from the police safe. No sooner does Ann have the money than her house burns down. Two charred bodies are found inside, along with evidence of arson, and Matt finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being the #1 suspect - unless he can hide his past relationship with Ann from the lead investigator, who happens to be his wife. Plus, the DEA wants the money that is no longer in the Banyan Key PD's safe.

Considering the script problems, at least we have Denzel Washington's acting and Franklin's sense of style. No doubt about it, this movie looks and sounds great. The camerawork is impeccable, transporting us the Florida Keys, and the Carribbean-flavored score by Graeme Revell adds to the exotic taste. Franklin may not be working with the strongest screenplay (credited to Dave Collard), but he does what he can to beef it up. And there are times, especially during the film's second half, when the chase sequences develop momentum, especially as Matt becomes increasingly frantic to cover up his involvement with Ann.

This will not be remembered as one of Denzel Washington's great performances, and he certainly won't be awakened early on a chilly January morning to hear that he has been nominated for an Oscar. Nevertheless, Washington is more than competent, and the actor's likeability is easily transferred to the character. Washington is at his best when the situation is becoming difficult - he handles Matt's escalating desperation with ease. For the most part, the female leads - Eva Mendes and Sanaa Lathan - provide a pair of pretty faces. Dean Cain is credible as a villain, and John Billingsley does an acceptable job adding comic relief via his part as the local M.E.

The biggest plot problem is why the criminals will settle for $485,000 when they could easily (and probably with less effort) have had more than twice that. (There's a $1,000,000 insurance policy floating around.) By ignoring gaffes like this, the movie shows a lack of respect for the intelligence of its audience. Too much of what happens is either predictable or easily telgraphed, seriously limiting the potential for suspense and tension. Franklin is an accomplished director, but this is not one of his stronger efforts.

To date, the worst movie I have seen at this year's featival is the maudlin hack-job My Life Without Me, a movie about terminal illness that even the Lifetime Television Network might reject. (Okay, so maybe that's going a little too far. Lifetime will show just about anything.) Inexplicably, this film already has a U.S. distributor (Sony Pictures Classics), so it will almost certainly be getting an art-house release at some point in the not-too-distant future. This is something to watch for so you can miss it. Depending on my opinion of The Brown Bunny (which I don't see until Friday), this could end up being the 2003 Dog of the Festival. (In speaking to a few other critics, I learned that the derision I felt was pretty much universal, at least as far members of the press corps are concerned.)

The film, from director Isabel Coixet, is an unsubtle, superficial look at the impending death of a singularly unappealing lead character whose primary personality trait is self-absorbtion. The movie lacks any of the depth and complexity of The Barbarian Invasions, a motion picture that addresses many of the same issues. Coixet's film is rambling, slow, and frustratingly simplistic in its view of how a personal approaches a death sentence.

The protagonist is Ann (Sarah Polley), a 23-year old white trash wife and mother who makes ends meet by working a night job as a custodian at a local university. When she learns that she only has 2-3 months to live, she elects not to inform her family of her condition - a selfish act that she somehow believes is for their own good - and makes a list of ten things she wants to do before she dies. These tasks include recording messages for her daughters for every birthday until their 18th (the kind of thing only a movie character would do), getting her hair and nails done (!), having an affair, and (most cruelly) making a man fall in love with her. The poor sap that becomes the target of that objective is Mark Ruffalo. You feel sorry for him the first time you see him, because you know what's going to happen.

The film is noteworthy in that it features the worst performance in the young career of Sarah Polley. Although Ann doesn't suffer from the mysterious cinematic condition where a dying woman grows more beautiful as death looms, Polley never convinces us that Ann is deathly ill. The promising actress seemingly fails to "get" her character, and it doesn't take long for the viewer to become aware of this. Ruffalo is fine, but Deborah Harry (as Ann's mother), Amanda Plummer (as Ann's co-worker), and Maria de Medeiros (as a hairdresser) are all irritating.

By the time this movie was just past the 60-minute point, I found myself wishing that Ann would go ahead and die so that the end credits could roll. The uncertain tone of the film fluctuates back and forth between detached aloofness and manipulative melodrama (an unsettling mix - at least Terms of Endearment had the good sense to stick with being a tear-jerker from start to end). The screenplay is as superficial as the lead character. Issues of spirtuality and the afterlife are essentially ignored, leaving a huge credibility hole. Questions of God, faith, and religion dominate the thoughts of nearly everyone who is terminally ill - to ignore such a major issue is dishonest. Then again, considering how badly conceived and executed the movie is, that's one of the nicer adjectives I can use to describe it.

© 2003 James Berardinelli

Back to Main Festival Page