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Wednesday, May 8, 2002

Difficult to warm up to an ice-cold heroine

A Price Above Rubies

Rating: * * 1/2
Japanese title: Shiawase Iro no Ruby
Director: Boaz Yakin
Running time: 117 minutes
Language: English
Opens May 18 at Hibiya Scala-za and other theaters

Sonia is a cool woman. Just how cool? She can tell whether a diamond is real or fake, just by looking at it. She's always dressed in dark, somber colors. She has a cute baby boy whom she doesn't really have to look after. She has a Latino artist boyfriend who designs jewelry. She has hallucinations that come and go but are not substance-induced. And she sleeps with her brother-in-law, knowing that her husband is crazy about her.

News photo
Renée Zellwgger and Christopher Eccleston in "A Price Above Rubies"

Put all these factors together and you have a serious case of walking hypothermia. Touch her at your peril.

Then why am I not enthralled? Probably because Sonia is . . . (whisper) a bitch. Check out her behavior and psychology in "A Price Above Rubies" and correct me if I'm wrong.

Starring Renee Zellweger as the ice maiden and directed by Boaz Yakin ("Fresh"), this is supposedly a tale of how one woman liberates herself from the stifling traditions of the New York orthodox Jewish community to get in touch with her true self, and all that.

While the intentions are undeniably in the right place, the execution confused me -- I wanted to root for the heroine but couldn't do it from the bottom of my heart. Does this make me politically incorrect and uncool? Am I the only one to feel this way? Should I call my mother to see what she thinks, or just quit this job? I haven't had this many conflicting emotions since Brad Pitt married Jennifer Aniston.

Yakin grew up in the New York Jewish community himself and is an insightful guide into that mysterious world. Men revere rabbis like others revere NBA stars and in the households, rigid tradition reigns supreme. Especially memorable is a scene where Sonia's husband abandons their car in the middle of a traffic jam, just to get a glimpse of a famous rabbi. When a beggar goes up to him for money, he says: "Ask my wife, she has the wallet."

Such is the world that Sonia grew up in and subsequently married into. For a brief time, she is happy but her husband Mendel (Glenn Fitzgerald) remains the sexually repressed scholar who is totally immersed in orthodox traditions, and Sonia begins to feel stifled. Not even their baby son is a consolation, and Sonia begins to have strange daydreams about her brother Yossi (Shelton Dane), who went swimming one night when he was 11 and never returned. As the border between fantasy and reality grow fuzzy, she succumbs to the lust of her brother-in-law Sender (Christopher Eccleston) who gives her a job in his jewelry shop, then sleeps with her in the back room. Sonia hates Sender, but sexual relations with him unleash her dormant passions for life, art and love. She discovers a soul-mate in Latino jewelry designer Ramon (Allen Payne) and decides that from now on, she will follow her heart and her instincts instead of the ancient laws of the Torah.

While Sonia's rebellion is justified, the way she goes about it gives pause. After all, she had an inkling of what her husband was going to be like before she married him. The kind, hardworking Mendel doesn't really deserve his wife's sudden betrayal and abandonment. When she's off in the city hobnobbing with the art crowd, Mendel's sister Rachel (Julianna Margulies) takes care of her baby, cleans the apartment, etc. And without Sender's help she would never have gotten a job or discovered her calling in jewelry design.

The community that she sees as a yoke around her neck actually does much to help her. And is she grateful? Nah. It should be noted here that not once does Sonia express any words of gratitude. She's too busy trying to discover her real identity and too cool to say thank you. Also, for all the fuss she makes about Yossi, she was real nasty to him just before he disappeared -- he gave her a ruby as a birthday gift and she threw it on the floor right before his eyes, scornfully pointing out that it was fake. Even as a little girl, she was the ice queen.

To those women who remain anchored to their communities, who try to derive satisfaction from public duties while remaining plagued by their personal dilemmas, this work and its heroine may seem like a slap in the face. Zellweger's performance, however, is gutsy and believable. Yakin deploys to full advantage her soft, romantic looks that belie her iron will and indomitable spirit to get what she wants, no matter what.

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