Jun 14, 2007

On Evening

You could call it “The Hours 2” and you’d only be half wrong. Strangely satisfying despite its myriad flaws, Oscar nominated DP turned director Lajos Koltai’s “Evening” makes for a fascinating dip into the pseudo feminist/queer fetishization of WASPy leading ladies, trapped, regardless of class, with unfeeling or under-equipped men, that encompasses the entire Michael Cunningham cinematic oeuvre. Sporting an executive producer credit this time out and adapting someone else’s multi-strand, multi-generational novel (the original culprit being Susan Minot) instead of farming his diva fantasia out to British playwright David Hare, this film subtracts the luminous Julianne Moore from the roster, but in a five way deal picks up the stalwart Glenn Close, Vanessa Redgrave, her daughter Natasha Richardson and minor leaguer Mamie Gummer (Meryl’s Jr.), who holds her own even if she’s given one too many opportunities to cry.

The narrative’s heavy lifting is left to “The Hours” veterans Claire Danes and Toni Collette. Collette and Richardson play sisters, the former a non-committal wanderer heading toward an uncertain middle age, the other an accomplished if unsatisfied house wife and mother, who along with their sage like Irish nurse (Aileen Atkins) are caring for their dying mother (Redgrave), an ex-bohemian who settled into the stifling comfort and entitlement of married life to a New England brahmin instead of her desires for Jazz singer stardom, as the flashbacks to an all too eventful wedding weekend in the mid-fifties make clear. Not her wedding of course: that of her childhood friend Lila Wittenborn (Gummer), unsure of her essentially arranged marriage to Carl Ross (Timothy Kiefer), whose true love, the super cut Aryan love child of a groundskeeper Harris (Patrick Wilson, born to play roles like this), is too far below her social station to be taken seriously by her Patrician parents (Close and Barry Bostwick), who ignore the obvious homosexuality of their alcoholic, underachiever younger son Buddy (Hugh Dancy) who hopes to be a novelist. Of course, In a Michael Cunningham text, if you’re a gay novelist, you have very little chance to make it out of the third act alive.

Danes bridges the gap, playing the younger version of the Redgrave character and stepping on eggshells in just about every conversation she has – she’s the narrative’s manifestation of countercultural revolt among these troubled Newport resort homes full of stuffy white people. She sings jazz tunes with a knowing, paternal black pianist and wears clothing, straight from the heart of Greenwich Village that the Newport bitties circa 54’ find so “unique”. It’s all a bit much after awhile and as we wait for Dancy’s closet case to meltdown (foreshadowed way too much by Redgrave’s deathbed mumblings), cell phone clocks are wiped out and polite smiles are exchanged (that’s Meryl Streeps daughter! Wow) among an audience being coaxed toward an emotionally tone deaf ending by a film on autopilot, Oscar style.

The technical credits are quite impressive, yet Koltai unwisely keeps the pace so lethargic that we can’t help but notice his studied compositions. Still, with actresses this good, some things have to go right. Collette gets the big scenes, sniffling about the mother she never knew quite as well as she would have liked, questioning the viability of the relationship to the boyfriend who looks a little old to still be pursuing rock stardom, but we never since a larger series of forces weighing on her. The narrative of these four women in the present is so contained, the mystery of their lives together reduced to clichéd filial reckoning instead of earnest investigation of their various paths: the pain a failed artist can inflict upon her children is only hinted at, but never really explored. The denouement features Ms. Streep’s cameo, and isn’t she in fine form as always, even if all she has to do is to show up and explain to the daughters what the obvious 1950s sequences are telegraphing for us from the first few minutes of the film. Still, if I were to pick anyone to elucidate the cloudy themes of my beautiful, Oscar baiting literary adaptation, Id take the queen of accents everytime.