It’s time to come up with a more accurate label than “independent films” to identify features made outside the Hollywood system. Three indies opening this week (two of them produced by a single company, Good Machine) share the same theme: dysfunctional WASP families gathering for Thanksgiving dinner. Where’s the independence? Woody Allen prepared this uninviting meal a decade ago in Hannah and Her Sisters, and Jodie Foster recently reheated it in Home for the Holidays. You’d be better off dining at Burger King on Nov. 27 than attending any of these stressful repasts.
The Myth of Fingerprints, writer-director Bart Freundlich’s feature debut, is the best of an unsavory lot. At least all of its characters survive to the final credits. Freundlich sets his film in a picturesque unspecified New England town and introduces us to a model family. Not models of mental stabilitymost of them are mildly screwed upbut a clan played by an acting ensemble so blindingly good-looking that it seems to have stepped from the pages of a J. Crew catalog.
Reclusive, emotionally inaccessible Hal (gray-bearded Roy Scheider) and patient, warm-hearted Lena (elegant Blythe Danner) prepare Thanksgiving for their four grown children. Lovelorn Warren (ER’s Noah Wyle) hasn’t been home since his actress-girlfriend Daphne (Arija Bareikis) dumped him three years ago. Athletic, irresolute Jake (Michael Vartan) turns up with his outspoken significant other, Margaret (Hope Davis). Sullen, viper-tongued Mia (Julianne Moore) arrives with current lover Elliott (Brian Kerwin), a passive, put-upon shrink. Leigh (Laurel Holloman) still lives at home and, perhaps because she’s the youngest, has managed to avoid the problems that afflict her siblings.
In a series of vignettes drawn from the long holiday weekend, we watch these characters as they attempt to come to terms with the past, depicted in flashbacks and grainy home movies, and confront the future. (Chekhov, invoked by Daphne, who has appeared in a production of The Sea Gull, is clearly the inspiration for Freundlich’s screenplay.) Some old wounds begin to heal; new ones are inflicted. Little of dramatic consequence transpires, and it’s difficult to stir up much concern about the relatively trifling problems of a family so blessed with looks, intelligence, and prosperity. Still, 90 minutes with these handsome, talented performers, crisply photographed by Stephen Kazmierski in uncluttered interiors and postcard-pretty landscapes, goes down as easily (and unmemorably) as a raw oyster.
Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm is much harder to swallow. Lee’s adaptation of Rick Moody’s 1994 novel, scripted by James Schamus, takes place in Watergate-clouded November 1973, a decade after the Kennedy assassination. The ostensible setting is chilly New Canaan, Conn., but its true locale seems to be the ninth circle of hell. The film’s characters, old and young, plod glumly through a marathon of adultery, drug taking, wife swapping, boozing, exhibitionism, and shoplifting. Even the turkey looks depressed.
Our ungenial hosts, the Hood family, are coming apart. Ben (Kevin Kline) is screwing next-door neighbor Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver, who resembles Jane Fonda playing a whore on stilts). His humiliated wife Elena (Joan Allen cast yet again as a glacial spouse, this time sporting an early-’70s Streisand pageboy) is choking with suppressed rage. Listless teenage daughter Wendy (Christina Ricci) follows Ben’s lead by playing I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you’ll-show-me-yours with Janey’s two boys, and melancholy son Paul (Tobey Maguire) steals away on commuter trains to Manhattan in pursuit of an improbably named, decadent classmate, Libbets Casey (Katie Holmes). Before the holiday leftovers can be consumed, one of these characters is dead. In fact, two may have expired, but Lee is vague on this point. It scarcely matters, since everybody in the movie is spiritually kaput.
Attempting to recreate a period many viewers have lived through is a tricky task. Taiwan-born Lee, who moved to the United States in 1978, gets the surface details rightwaterbeds, hip ministers with Prince Valiant hair, bell-bottoms, est seminars, the Nixon-Agnew convict posterbut wholly misses the era’s essence. His characters pursue erotic and pharmacological liberation with the joie de vivre of students consigned to after-school detention. (“It’s been kind of a discouraging evening,” observes Janey’s husband after a doleful wife-swapping party.) Visually reinforcing their malaise, Frederick Elmes’ ghoulish camerawork magnifies every blemish, wrinkle, and wen. The physical settings mirror the characters’ angst. Their boxy modernist homes are festooned with icicles, but these, like the frost encrusting the windowpanes, are obviously Lucite props, as unconvincing as the film’s gelid nihilism.
After enduring an hour of this puritanical balderdash, one begins wondering why the Hoods and their friends are putting themselves through such misery. What’s the point of screwing, doping, and stealing if it doesn’t yield any pleasure? A line from Dostoevsky about the pursuit of evil quoted in an early classroom scene provides a partial but inadequate key to the movie’s relentless balefulness. I suspect Lee is pandering to the reactionary spirit currently abroad in the land, which views the late ’60s and early ’70s as a diabolical turning point in our culture, the moment when America chose the wrong path. (Fifteen years ago, the similarly titled The Big Chill peddled the same sententious revisionism.)
The Ice Storm is a priggish movie that only a Promise Keeper could embrace. Implicitly it calls for a return to the conformist era of the Nelsons and the Cleavers, a happy, bland, Mommy-and-Daddy world in which people unquestioningly do as they are told and are cosmically punished for straying from the straight and narrow. What other sense can one make of a film in which the only smiling face, glimpsed on a television screen, belongs to the beleaguered Richard Nixon?
The Kennedy assassination hovers over every frame of first-time writer-director Mark Waters’ gothic black comedy The House of Yes, adapted from Wendy MacLeod’s 1990 play. On Nov. 22, 1963, the day JFK was shot, the privileged Pascal family’s patriarch mysteriously disappeared. The confluence of these two events has deranged the Pascals, who inhabit a suburban Virginia mansion just a stone’s throw from Hickory Hill.
Twenty years later, Marty Pascal (Josh Hamilton), the only child to flee the family manse, comes home for Thanksgiving with his doughnut-shop waitress-fiancée Lesly (Tori Spelling). Mother (Genevieve Bujold) is basting the turkey and hiding the kitchen knives from her daughter Jackie-O (Parker Posey), a beautiful, batty young woman who thinks she’s Mrs. Kennedy. (Clad in a pink Chanel suit, matching pillbox hat and pearls, delusional Jackie-O conducts imaginary White House tours and stages re-enactments of the Dallas assassination.) Marty’s virginal, unemployed younger brother Anthony (Freddie Prinze Jr.) is also in residence. Early on, Mrs. Pascal, herself no poster girl for mental health, informs the appalled Lesly that Jackie-O came out of the womb holding her twin brother Marty’s penis. Jackie-O’s decision to stop taking her medication precipitates a series of predictable revelations capped by a climactic shooting.
Waters’ directionnearly all the action takes place inside the Pascal’s housefails to conceal the film’s theatrical origins. As a symbolic hurricane rages outside, betraying MacLeod’s lack of familiarity with Washington weather, each character is stagily introduced, complete with clunkily formulaic exposition and repetitious, sub-Albee absurdist dialogue. Although only 85 minutes long, the movie is littered with dull passages and feels needlessly attenuated.
Rarely as clever, funny, or outrageous as it supposes, this whack-job update of You Can’t Take It With You is essentially an exercise in bad taste. Its sole redeeming feature is Posey’s vivacious performance. One of the reigning presences of independent cinemathe odds-on candidate for parts Lili Taylor is too homely to portrayPosey plays Jackie-O with nutty abandon, vivifying an otherwise moribund movie. Unfortunately, her efforts are counterweighted by Spelling’s hopeless Lesly. Living proof that the science of facial reconstruction lags far behind body enhancement, this talentless young woman whines and simpers though an ingénue role any fledgling actress could effectively perform in her sleep. It’s hardly coincidental that The House of Yes is a Spelling Films production. Indulgent papa Aaron must have hoped that he could transform his gosling into a swan by casting her in his idea of a hip boutique film. The result, however, is her transmogrification into a different fowl, traditionally served with cranberry sauce.CP