Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Things We Lost in the Fire

Allan Loeb is one of those screenwriters who’s famous within the industry for a movie nobody has seen. An as-yet unproduced script titled The Only Living Boy in New York has gotten passed around and buzzed about in Hollywood for years, burnishing his reputation though his only credits, until now, were a handful of TV scripts.

But if Only Living Boy is really that good, why is Things We Lost in the Fire, Loeb’s first feature to make it to the screen, such a cliché-ridden, lugubrious misfire?

The fault is surely in the script, since Danish director Susanne Bier’s other work is all about the unpredictability and intensity of human emotions. Take Brothers, Bier’s film about the effect of the war in Afghanistan on a soldier and the family he left behind. When the tension that’s been building erupts in a fight, it’s genuinely scary: The sparring starts suddenly and proceeds messily, building up to a charged standoff that could easily go either way.

There’s nothing approaching that raw naturalism in this prefab construction. Instead, perhaps in a misguided attempt to make up for what’s lacking in the overdetermined script, we get close-ups so uncomfortably extreme that part of one giant eyeball sometimes fills an entire quarter of the screen. In the right context, zooming in that close on a stranger’s body parts could be revealing, especially when it’s Benicio Del Toro’s shifty eye and pale, puffy eyelid you’re anatomizing, but the effect here is more opthalmalogical than psychological. The same happens in the editing room during a big breakdown. The scene should be an emotional climax, but it goes on so long and makes so many pointless shifts in camera angle that it starts to lose its impact, feeling more like a screen test than a genuine experience.

Loeb’s fashionably fractured narrative jumps back and forth in time and includes a lot of patly packaged moments. It also features a juicy, Oscar-bait female lead. Audrey is a sexy wife, a fiercely protective mother, and a bereft widow, and she gets several big emotional scenes, plus the speech that gives the film its title. No wonder the part “drew the attention of just about every female movie star from Julia Roberts down,” according to the LA Times.

Berry acquits herself with dignity, handling Audrey’s anger particularly well, but the film is stolen by the magnificently unpredictable Del Toro, who plays Jerry, the junkie who was the best friend of Audrey’s deceased husband, Brian (David Duchovny).

De Toro's Jerry vibrates with energy even when he’s nodding out. The intelligence and soul the actor brings to the part singlehandedly make Jerry’s instant chemistry with Audrey’s kids one of the most believable and charming parts of the story, even though the adorably curly-headed actors who play the kids are a bit guarded and self-conscious.

Audrey, who resented Brian’s friendship with Jerry while he was alive, moves his friend into their garage after her husband’s death (this is a better deal than it sounds like, since their house is so swanky that even the garage looks like it was lit by Hurrell.) It’s not clear even to her why she does this, but once she does, Jerry’s relationship to her family becomes the core of the story.

It’s a relief that Jerry and Audrey never hook up romantically, and that the sexual tension between them is acknowledged in a scene where they almost make out and regret it instantly. But everything else that happens after Jerry moves into the garage follows so deep a rut that only Del Toro’s prodigious talent keeps the movie from bogging down completely.

A dull sense of familiarity sets in as Jerry gets clean, get his life back on track, and bonds with Audrey, her kids, and their neighbor Howard (John Carroll Lynch). Look, there’s Audrey picking a fight with Jerry and kicking him out. There’s Jerry’s relapse, and Audrey tracking him down in a bad part of town. And yup, there’s Jerry, with the blankets and the thrashing and the puking and the sweat, going cold turkey in Audrey’s garage.

The supporting characters are ciphers. all Howard is played strictly for comic relief, his rotten marriage sketched in as lightly as an image traced in steam on a bathroom mirror. Audrey’s mother (or is she her sister?) has even less heft, popping in and out of a couple of scenes without leaving a trace. And Loeb fails to develop either the character of Kelly, a charming girl who falls in love with Jerry in Narcotics Anonymous, or her relationship with Jerry.

A would-be realistic, character-driven drama that lacks the unpredictability and rough texture of real life, Things We Lost in the Fire relies on its stars' personal magnetism and talent, magnified by melodramatic camerawork and editing, to appeal to our emotions. It succeeds now and then, but in the end it's just the emotional equivalent of empty calories, one more piece of processed Hollywood cheese.

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