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Director Todd Field’s overrated 2001 debut, In the Bedroom, turned on bereft parents’ intense love for their murdered son. His second film, an even less believable inter-generational parable, is titled Little Children, but this time the kids barely matter. Two of them, pre-K-age Lucy and Aaron (Sadie Goldstein and Ty Simpkins), are merely the expedient by which their respective Mommy and Daddy, Sarah (Kate Winslet) and Brad (Patrick Wilson), meet and begin an affair. As for any other children in the movie’s Massachusetts commuter town, they’re just the theoretical rationale for a harassment campaign against convicted flasher Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley) by angry ex-cop Larry (Noah Emmerich). After an opening tour of ceramic figures of children—we’ll learn later who the collector is—the action begins at the local playground, where an ironic narrator emphasizes former literature student Sarah’s detachment from her life as a suburban housewife. To shock the other mothers, all of them unconvincingly prim and parochial, Sarah strikes up a conversation with Brad, a one-time college-football star who’s the town’s only stay-at-home dad. Sarah is alienated from husband Richard (Gregg Edelman), who prefers Internet porn to his family; Brad, who’s failed the bar exam twice, is intimidated by wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), a documentary filmmaker who lets Aaron sleep between her and Brad every night. So Sarah joins a book group, where she explains Madame Bovary (what else?) to local matrons, while Brad relives past glory with Larry’s tag-football team. And Sarah and Brad pull each other’s clothes off every time the kids take a nap. Scripted by Field and Tom Perrotta from the latter’s novel, Little Children is intentionally very literary, with narration that sometimes substitutes for dialogue and a symmetrical structure that returns to the playground for the last act. But feelings that might persuade on the page—such as Sarah’s worry that she’s less attractive than Kathy—don’t work when all the characters are embodied by movie stars. And the final bloody flourish, though arguably symbolic, plays as all too literal.—Mark Jenkins