Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Shipping News


I am absolutely exhausted. Three weeks of location shooting in Europe will do that to even a star of my magnitude and legendary stamina. Fortunately, we've captured the footage we need for my spectacular new film musical, Goodfollies, and I have returned to Chateau Maine in order to film the studio portions of the picture. I have so many tales to tell from our adventures on the other side of the pond - I'll have to get busy with my viewing and reviewing in order to get with them all.

I departed from Hollywood for our first stop, London, at the end of August. There was some confusion at LAX. I arrived with all thirty three pieces of my Louis Vuitton packed and ready to go. I had been promised a first class seat on the Concorde by the studio. Somehow, through a reservations mix-up, I was relegated to steerage, way back in the economy section of a British Airways flight, staffed by extras from Day of the Dead. Simply frightful. Between the squalling children, the surly staff, and the crowded (and possibly disease ridden) conditions, I was in fear for my life. Gatwick airport was a distinct relief, despite some unpleasantness at customs as my passport photograph (a lovely still from Dangerous When Damp) was taken some years ago.

Even steerage on the flight came equipped with individual video screens, roughly the size of a postage stamp. In order to make the hours pass, I tuned in The Shipping News, Lasse Hallstrom's version of the celebrated Annie Proulx novel which was released with great fanfare to critical and public indifference last winter. The film contains four of the finest film actors working today, Kevin Spacey, Judi Dench, Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett in central roles, and I was intrigued as to how an award winning director, award winning actors and an award winning novel could be whipped up into anything other than success. Half way through, I was reminded of Bille August's disastrous film version of Isabel Allende's The House of Spirits. There's something about the US film making system, foreign directors, and magic realism in literature that seems to turn souffl√© into flan.

Kevin Spacey stars as Quoyle (he doesn't seem to have a Christian name), a brow-beaten wimp of a man with no life, no skills, no prospects and no personality. He makes Casper Milquetoast look like Ted Turner. One day, he runs into Petal (Cate Blanchett), a white trash harlot on wheels who, for reasons of plot, marries him, gives him a daughter, and conveniently expires in a car crash fifteen minutes later. While Quoyle is trying to cope with grief and single fatherhood, his long lost aunt Agnis (Judi Dench) turns up and whisks him and his young daughter away to the ancestral homestead in small town Newfoundland, somewhere around the Outer Banks. His last dead end job was as a printer at a newspaper so he applies for a position with the gruff owner of the local rag (Scott Glenn) where he is put in charge of the Shipping News - small items about the vessels heading in and out of port. Quoyle begins to thaw as a human being as the snows grow colder, striking up a new relationship with day care teacher Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore), becoming involved in a lot of twee village incidents with colorful locals, and discovering dark secrets about the Quoyle family, both ancient and modern.

I have not read the original novel, but what shines through in the material is a delicate balance between the darker and lighter sides of human nature and communal life. Many of the incidents should be searingly painful, and full of a hyper-reality, somewhat akin to the magic realism tradition of Latin American literature. The film, however, does not tread this tightrope at all well. The tone seems somewhat unpleasantly sunny, as if Newfoundland were settled by a bunch of plucky Hobbits, and it's at odds with the steely blue grey color palette of the landscape and the photography (courtesy of Mark Hryma and Oliver Stapleton). Moments of great emotion feel forced and trivialized, and the secrets, when they are revealed seem anticlimactic rather than heartbreaking. Hallstrom has made other films based in small town life (My Life as a DogWhat's Eating Gilbert Grape?) which have worked wonderfully well. I think he's let down here by a poor screen adaptation (Robert Nelson Jacobs) and studio interference from Harvey Weinstein of Miramax. I'm wondering if the film as released is anything like the film Hallstrom envisioned. There are a few moments of great beauty - a 19th century clan dragging a house across the ice sticks in the mind long past the film's end, but they're few and far between.

The performances are adequate, but hollow. Spacey's Quoyle is so self-effacing, that he becomes a charisma vortex, sucking the life out of scene after scene. There must have been a way of making the character a bit more of a man and less of a cipher while remaining true to the author's vision. Julianne Moore seems to be given nothing to work with. She shakes her red mane routinely and bats her eyes but again, doesn't seem to have been given a human being to play. Judi Dench fares better. Her Aunt Agnis has a spark of life and she delves through some of the more melodramatic moments in search of the life underneath and is able to convey that through economical body language, and especially with her luminous china blue eyes. Cate Blanchett gives the best performance in the film. Her Petal is one hot momma, living for the moment and you root for her in all her depravity. Unfortunately, she drives off a bridge far too soon and you have to spend an hour and three quarters without her.

I so wanted to like the film, and it does have its merits, but in the end, it's about as soggy as yesterday's Rice Krispies in milk. No snap, crackle or pop left.

Evil unseen father figure. Evil Quoyle ancestors. Mysterious cousin who is never explained adequately. Gratuitous squid jokes. Gratuitous blubber jokes. Car accidents. Metaphorical house. Overly precious disabled child. Chinese junk destruction.

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