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Wednesday, March 27, 2002
Like midlife crises crashing in the night
By KAORI SHOJI
Lasse Hallstrom occupies a curious position in American cinema -- he's mainstream, but the stories he chooses are always anything but. "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," "Cider House Rules" and "Chocolat" are tales about the down-trodden trying to heal from hangups or mend dysfunctional relationships. They live in settings that are less than glamorous: a dusty hamlet, a windswept apple orchard, an anachronistic and narrow-minded village. But, to tell their stories, Hallstrom consistently assembles casts so stellar they could provide material for a team of astrophysicists. Big names in small stories is Hallstrom's forte, and as it stands, few other Hollywood directors have quite his touch in portraying wounded hearts and their modest struggles for recovery.
Hallstrom's latest is "The Shipping News," based on the novel by E. Annie Proulx. If you've read the book, you'll know this is a densely written work of enormous depth and scope. Consequently, it's tricky screen material -- we've all seen beloved books chopped and cheapened beyond recognition. Still, if "The Shipping News" had to be adapted at all, Hallstrom was undeniably the director to do it. He never attempts to cram everything into 120 minutes but zeroes in on a few choice incidents and devotes the rest of the time to building atmosphere and texture. Fans of the book may find the result spotty or shallow, but it's clear Hallstrom's intention was to give us not an onscreen reading session, but a brief tour through the world in which the characters live and breathe.
In the case of "The Shipping News," the tour is rocky, often wet and freezing cold. Set in Newfoundland, the movie is a showcase for Swedish-born Hallstrom's built-in aesthetic for depicting things like gray clouds sprinting across a huge white sky, icy waves chopping against fishing boats, the ever-whirling wind whipping through trees and houses and people. Brrr. Never have sweaters and earmuffs (you'll see a whole lot of them) looked so inviting and . . . necessary. Fifteen minutes into the picture and you'll be suppressing the urge to blow warm air into your hands.
Such is the landscape occupied by the characters, all with old burn marks from their pasts, all still smarting from the pain. Quoyle (Kevin Spacey) had been a loser his whole life. His father abused him, friends ignored him and his marriage was wrecked by his flamboyantly bitchy wife, Petal (Cate Blanchett). Petal kidnaps their daughter Bunny (played by the triplets Alyssa, Kaitlin and Lauren Gainer), sells her to an illegal adoption organization and elopes to Florida. On the way, she crashes her car and is killed.
Quoyle hardly knows what to do next when in steps Aunt Agnis (Judi Dench). Seeing her nephew and Bunny (rescued by the police and returned home) in their sorry state, she proposes to take them to Newfoundland, home of their ancestors. Agnis seems to be nursing a few scars of her own, though she keeps her emotions well under wraps. To Quoyle, she is hard and no-nonsense, telling him not to be silly when he is appalled by his new job (reporting on car wrecks for a local paper). He turns out to have a flair for words and is put in charge of the Shipping News column, writing about the various vessels that come and go.
As he settles down to his new life, Quoyle gains new friends (i.e., the amusing Beaufield Nutbeem played by Rhys Ifans and the marvelously creased fisherman Jack Buggit, played by Scott Glen) and the company of the plucky widow Wavey (Julianne Moore), who is strangely reticent about her late husband. Quoyle is attracted but is sadly out of practice when he tries to court her and blunders hopelessly. In the end, they draw closer, discovering that there could be a love "that is neither full of pain nor heartbreak."
Spacey has reached a point in his career where he can play the uninspired, walking midlife crisis with his eyes closed. Indeed, some of his performance repeats what he did in "American Beauty" (sudden tantrums alternating with self-loathing alternating with the impulse to take control, then failing miserably) but honed to a state of art that is worthy of a museum exhibition: "The Middle-Aged Dud."
The women in his life provide the contrasts -- strong, steely and secretly tortured by their emotions. Even Quoyle's daughter is more complicated than her father, displaying a deep (and sad) understanding of the world in a way that eludes him. But the woman who influences him most is the one alien note in this well-tuned orchestra -- Petal, who is neither persevering or resilient, her wounds and joys always hanging out for the world to see. Her only fear is boredom and her only interest is to avoid it, whatever the cost to herself or loved ones. Oddly enough, this woman with the unquenchable thirst is the centerpiece of the film, even though she makes a quick exit during the first half hour. Her shocking-pink personality, tacked smack in the middle of the endless blue and gray tones of both Quoyle's mind and the Newfoundland coast, haunts the story like the memory of a kiss.