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Through a glass, darkly: Kidman as Woolf in The Hours.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
By Shawn Stone

The Hours
Directed by Stephen Daldry

What is an acceptable price to pay to live the life you want? That’s the question posed in this complex film about three women, each facing a defining moment in their lives.

The Hours tells three parallel stories. In 1923, Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) recovers from a bout of mental illness under the care of her concerned husband, Leonard (Stephen Dillane). Marooned in the suburbs by a doctor’s order, Woolf is writing her novel Mrs. Dalloway. In early-’50s Los Angeles, five-months-pregnant Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) is on the edge of a breakdown, though her seemingly attentive husband Dan (John C. Reilly) doesn’t notice. Brown is reading Mrs. Dalloway. In contemporary New York City, Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep) is preparing to throw a party for her dying friend Richard (Ed Harris)—a party Richard isn’t sure he wants. Richard’s nickname for Clarissa is “Mrs. Dalloway.”

Based on a much-acclaimed novel by Michael Cunningham, The Hours is an ingenious series of puzzles for the audience to work through. Each character has a counterpart in the other narratives; connections are drawn by director Stephen Daldry through both acting (matched action from actor to actor) and cutting (for example, one door opens in 1923, and another closes in 2001). To keep things lively, Daldry plants his share of red herrings; most of the film’s surprises come from deft misdirection. As each of the stories plays out, tension develops between what the viewers know and what they think they know.

The film’s complicated storyline is entertaining, partly because Daldry keeps things moving along, and partly because it is so ingenious. The mathematical precision, however, seems a bit antithetical to the spirit of Virginia Woolf. It has little in common with the brilliant, intuitive flow of her novels—particularly Mrs. Dalloway.

That said, Woolf isn’t in the story because of what she wrote, but rather why she wrote—in order to live life to its fullest. This not-exactly-new concept is given life through Kidman’s fierce performance. Her movie-star looks hidden behind a prosthetic proboscis, Kidman is passionate and convincing, whether pondering the peace of death or pleading to be allowed to live the life she desires.

As for Kidman’s counterparts, Moore is nearly as powerful as the tormented housewife, while Streep is less effective as Vaughn, a woman afraid to embrace happiness. This may have much to do with the material: While the Woolf and Brown segments are spare and dramatic, the contemporary action is cluttered with characters and incidents, and makes less of a direct impact. Even so, Streep seems to be relying on her old tricks—or, more precisely, acting tics—and does much more original work in Adaptation.

Ed Harris steals the modern story with his tormented turn as a dying poet, while Toni Collette—onscreen for only a few minutes in the ’50s segment—gives, arguably, the most astonishing performance in the film. Collette is a chameleon, embodying cattiness, terror and lust with utter naturalness, while, at the same time, deconstructing the screen persona of Marilyn Monroe. She’s so good, I’m surprised she wasn’t cut out of the film.

If the picture can be faulted for anything, it’s an unmodulated somber tone. (Philip Glass’ marvelous score fits this mood perfectly—too perfectly.) The three stories are also resolved with an unanticipated neatness. Flaws aside, however, The Hours is still affecting—and a fine tribute to a literary giant who was determined to go her own way.

Too Much, Too Late

25th Hour
Directed by Spike Lee

The opening sequence of Spike Lee’s 25th Hour is an iconic panorama of post-9/11 New York City, shot in glitzy high contrast. The dire but glittering night sky is illuminated by twin memorial floodlights beaming down like shafts of divine solace. Slowly, it becomes apparent that the strident background sounds are of a dog being beaten. This mixed message about the city in all its allure and anxiety is an unresolved leitmotif meant to ennoble the day of reckoning of a remorseless drug dealer. It doesn’t.

The dog, which has been tossed out of a car like a bag of garbage, is rescued by Monte Brogan (Edward Norton), a smack dealer involved with the Russian mob. Monte’s good Samaritanism savvily establishes sympathy for a character that doesn’t deserve any. Fast-forward a year or so, and the dog is thriving but Monte has been “touched”—nabbed by narcs. He has 24 hours of freedom before he’s sent to the hoosegow, during which time he tries to resolve some seriously New Yorky issues while fearfully anticipating his immediate future as the sex toy of an entire cell block (a fact the film seems to relish). One of his concerns is his younger girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), a Puerto Rican bombshell he suspects to have fingered him to the DEA. Monte pushes her away to spend the evening with his two oldest chums, Frankie (Barry Pepper), a successful stockbroker from Bayside, and Jakob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a Jewish teacher from the Upper East Side. He also pays a visit to his devastated Pop (Brian Cox), a blue-collar bar owner and reformed alcoholic.

The story (adapted by David Benioff from his novel) has tremendous inherent tension, and most of it is dissipated in talky encounters and emblematic set pieces of the characters getting on each other’s nerves. The pressure’s on all of them, and their conflicted responses to those pressures are meant to exemplify the city in its darkest hours. But 25th Hour isn’t really about these exaggeratedly jittery and morally moorless souls. It’s about their archetypical status in a race-conscious landscape. Monte has a self-hating encounter with a men’s-room mirror, in which he does not excoriate drugs, money, addicts, squealers, or any other causative factor in his impending jail term, but instead goes on a rant about diamond-hawking Hasidim, street-peddling Nigerians, cheating black basketball players, posturing Italian thugs, speeding Middle-Eastern cab drivers, and clannish Irish bar owners. He will feel a desperate appreciation for all these people as he passes them by on the way to prison.

Monte’s relationship with Naturelle is kept on a simmeringly superficial level of sex and money while the unconvincing friendship between uncouth, sharkish Francis and timid, sad-sack Jakob is dragged out with one terminally contentious conversation after another, most of them meant to exacerbate cultural and ethnic differences that are so commonplace as to be unremarkable. More sharply sociological is the friendship between Monte and Frankie, who took different but similar routes to “escape from green beer” and become yuppie scum. But the two upwardly-amoral pals have hardly any scenes together until the relationship explodes in a near-biblical (and nonsensical) outburst of mutual guilt.

Norton drives the meandering plot with his innate intensity until the 25th hour, played as a road trip through his father’s fantasy of what Monte’s life could’ve been. But by this point, it has been more than enough.

—Ann Morrow

Little Boy Lost

Antwone Fisher
Directed by Denzel Washington

In order to fully appreciate Antwone Fisher, the directorial debut of its costar Denzel Washington, you have to buy into the idea that blacks have a hard time being responsible, loving parents because they are emotionally stunted from generations ago having been mistreated by their white slavemasters. Quoting John W. Blassingame’s book The Slave Community, Washington’s character, naval psychiatrist Jerome Davenport, instructs his hotheaded patient Antwone Fisher (Derek Luke) that blacks often have repeated the abuse that was heaped on their slave forefathers onto their own children, and hastily adds that, of course, we all do have choices.

The desire to have it both ways—to paint a particular black character’s own personal turmoil within the lines of a larger picture of African-American dysfunction, while sheepishly admitting that perhaps it can’t all be traced back to slavery—is a problem that weighs heavily on the spirit of the movie Antwone Fisher. Based on a screenplay by the real-life title character—who supposedly sold it to the moviemakers he saw everyday in his job as a security guard at a major motion-picture studio—the story traces the search by Antwone for the family that supposedly threw him away, and in the process, for his own humanity.

Fisher’s father was gunned down by a jealous ex-girlfriend shortly before Antwone was born in prison. Placed in foster care, he waits in vain for his birth mother to claim him; instead, he winds up in the home of self-loathing Mrs. Tate (Novella Nelson) and her sexually manipulative daughter Nadine (Yolanda Ross), where he encountered all matter of abuse, which Washington rather tastefully suggests. All this comes out, eventually, when the grown Antwone, now in the U.S. Navy, is forced to undergo psychiatric counseling after a series of violent scrapes with fellow seamen.

As is the case in most Hollywood films that hinge on the idea that everybody needs a good shrink, or at least a good cry (Good Will Hunting comes to mind), Antwone Fisher is bereft of the tension that would exist if we were to doubt that the lead character will make good, become a better man, get in touch with his inner child. It doesn’t help that when we first encounter Antwone, he doesn’t seem so badass—we need no convincing to accept that this guy is a decent sort who can only get, well, more decent. How involving is that?

Washington recycles many of his previous roles, which means he gets to appear authoritarian, yet gentle, and call his patient “son” a lot. A subplot involving Davenport’s disintegrating marriage to wife Berta (Salli Richardson)—meant to parallel his character’s inner turmoil with Antwone’s—is hardly developed and probably should have been left on the cutting-room floor. Luke is earnest and appealing in a solid film debut, but as mentioned, he doesn’t show us the supposedly wide emotional chasm his character traverses to go from being (supposedly) sullen and antisocial to being warm and sure of himself. This is largely a problem with the screenplay and, perhaps, with Washington’s direction. Still, Luke shows real range in a scene where he confronts the birth mother who abandoned him, and except for her sole tear upon Antwone’s departure (which detracts from the power of this moment), this scene packs a wallop.

There are some solid moments in this movie; one is Fisher’s dream of being a child who is welcomed into the lives of wonderful black people of every time period, a scene later echoed both when Antwone shares Thanksgiving dinner with Davenport’s bickering family and when he is welcomed home by his father’s huge and boisterous family. All these scenes highlight (however Hallmarkishly) the strengths of the black family without resorting to either Davenport’s psychobabble or Blassingame’s blame game. Washington shows a deft hand at demonstrating the burgeoning, sweet romance of Antwone and fellow sailor Cheryl (Joy Bryant). But he also sentimentalizes—as much as possible—naval life. Granted, guys like Antwone Fisher could do worse than to learn some spit and polish in the military, but all those loving shots of the ships further diffuse the story’s emotion to the poignancy level of a recruitment ad.

—Laura Leon

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