Though the story of two separated lovers braving incredible hardships to eventually reunite is a common one in war-themed movies, I don't think I've ever been less moved by it than in Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain, an adaptation of Charles Frazier's much-adored Civil War novel.
Technically awesome, occasionally gripping, and prestigious to a fault, Cold Mountain is, nevertheless, a hopelessly unsatisfying movie because its central characters are so vague; God knows that leads Jude Law and Nicole Kidman have Star Wattage to spare, but the nature of their roles makes it impossible for them to connect with one another, and in turn, with the audience. After a few brief flirtations and one sudden soul kiss, Law's and Kidman's characters are torn apart when Law joins the Confederate army; after being wounded in battle, Law begins his long trek back to his beloved, while she, after the death of her father, attempts to keep the family plantation in running order so he'll have a home to return to. On paper, this might read as unbearably romantic, yet none of it registers onscreen. Both Law and Kidman appear uncomfortable with their Southern dialects - half their lines sound looped - and seem too old for the characters they're playing, and their romantic declarations are stale; Cold Mountain, as a film, is more an idea for an epic romance than an actual one. (Even the couple's eventual reunion is a letdown; when Law and Kidman lock eyes again after so many years apart, there isn't a wet eye in the house.) Anthony Minghella pulls off some amazing individual moments in the film, and really gets at the instability and terror of the country during the war (you're continually aware that no one was safe from either Union or Confederate soldiers), but when we focus on the historical romance of the tale, the picture dies.
What makes the movie continually watchable, even when you're disliking it, are the contributions of the supporting cast; every few minutes another familiar actor arrives to deliver a grizzled character turn and keep the film moving. (Cold Mountain often resembles a tony, highfalutin take on Scorsese's After Hours.) Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kathy Baker, Giovanni Ribisi, Brendan Gleeson (marvelous), Eileen Atkins, Ray Winstone, Natalie Portman (never better), Jena Malone, and Ethan Suplee all give the film some texture. And then there's Renée Zellweger, who provides one of those obvious comic-relief performances that's all but designed to steal the Supporting Actress Oscar away from someone who actually deserves it (like Pieces of April's Patricia Clarkson ... see below), but she certainly gets credit for shaking the audience out of its prestige-pic doldrums. Stunningly designed though it is, Cold Mountain is a long drag, an epic production in which nothing truly epic takes place.
PIECES OF APRIL
We've all seen movies that fall apart after a promising beginning, but Pieces of April is something else entirely - a work whose labored, hit-and-miss opening hour is completely redeemed by a spectacular final reel. In writer/director Peter Hedges' comedy/drama, currently playing at the Brew & View, black-sheep daughter April (Katie Holmes) is preparing Thanksgiving dinner for her estranged family, and while we witness her comedic travails involved in getting the turkey cooked on time - with her own oven on the fritz, April recruits a series of eccentric neighbors to help - we also tag along on the family's road trip (the clan includes befuddled dad Oliver Platt and cancer-stricken mom Patricia Clarkson) as they prepare for a meal they're all dreading. Though Hedges writes some shrewdly funny dialogue, and appears very observant about family dynamics, you might find yourself no more than slightly amused during Pieces of April's first half. The film is too nakedly designed as a morality play about reconciliation, April's adventures with her "wacky" neighbors are badly acted and sitcom-obvious, and Holmes, as Goth Girl gone good, seems horribly miscast; her expression might read: "I'm doing this movie for indie cred but have no idea what that means." (The role begs for Clea Duvall.)
Yet stick with the film, because it resolves itself in one of the most touching finales I've seen in years - my friends and I were weepy messes when the lights came up - and it features a performance by Patricia Clarkson that must not be missed. Clarkson can always be counted on to bring something spiky and inventive to her portrayals, and what most impresses here is the variety and shading she brings to her anger and the discomfiting gallows humor that accompanies it. This woman positively hates being ill, and doesn't care if, by making cruel jokes about her wayward daughter, her lashing out makes others uncomfortable; she's the one who's dying, damn it, and she'll say and feel whatever she pleases. It's a completely unsentimental, uncompromising performance, and Clarkson's finest work to date. By the film's end, though, everyone in April's family, without your even being aware of it, has snuck into your heart (even Holmes comes through with a piece of transcendent wordless acting when she realizes her family might boycott dinner), and Pieces of April, against all expectations, proves more affecting and memorable than lots of much better movies.
STUCK ON YOU
Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear seem to be having so much fun as the conjoined twins of Peter and Bobby Farrelly's Stuck on You that you may find yourself irrationally pissed at how treacly the movie itself is. Seriously, what's happened to the Farrellys? Though they've never been competent filmmakers - and, based on the staging and pacing here, don't appear eager to improve - their movies used to be disreputably engaging nonetheless; you could sit through a mess like Dumb & Dumber or There's Something About Mary for the four or five thrillingly obscene sequences of unbridled comic chutzpah. Yet, based on Shallow Hal and this film, a strange motif has settled into the Farrellys' work: They establish characters and situations with cruel jokes baked right in - about the obese, about conjoined twins - and then spend the rest of the movie apologizing for the jokes. Maybe the Farrellys don't fully believe in their actors; had they trusted, for instance, how naturally sweet and funny Damon and Kinnear would be, they might not have wasted so much time reminding us how sweet and funny they are. But every scene in Stuck on You is hindered by niceness, an aw-shucks gentility that lacks comic bite and forward momentum; the movie, pleasant though some of it is, just lies there. Meryl Streep, bless her heart, gives the proceedings some brief, much-needed dry wit, and Cher comes through with a surprisingly tart self-parody, but Stuck on You, like Shallow Hal before it, is a toothless, timid thing, and shows the Farrellys - once beacons of impropriety - losing their mass audience by pandering for mainstream acceptance.