Dec 2, 2008

DVD Review: On Beautiful, Ohio

Recapitulating the high Nixon era is a troublesome project for most moviemakers, especially those who try to distill and encapsulate the myriad (and not so simple) social, moral and cultural upheavals Americans were undergoing through the increasingly disposable genre of the multi-generational coming of age drama. Not without its share of competent craftsmanship and appealing performances, Chad Lowe’s Beautiful, Ohio doesn’t succumb to or transcend the limitations of its genre origins. In tone and style it suggests that the former Mr. Swank, who’s Academy Award winning ex-wife produced, has been studying at the alter of indie film orthodoxy rather than finding authentic and offbeat ways to dramatize this unoriginal but oddly watchable tale.

William Hurt and Rita Wilson are Simon and Judith Messerman, a middle class, socially moderate couple who find rock and roll untenable and haven’t heard of the sexual revolution. He’s a World War II vertern and an insurance salesman at Ohio Mutual; she’s a homemaker who’s obsessed with classical piano composition. Square doesn’t even begin to describe the depth of their unhip bona fides, established neatly in an early scene in which they return home to find their children, the counter-cultural math wiz Clive (David Call) and his underachieving older brother William (Brett Davern), watching a car crash filled adventure movies. Judith promptly bemoans the mind controlled waste pit that is TV while the kids place their set next to the dumpster.

Although handsomely mounted, Beautiful, Ohio, which for most of its running time takes place in Cleveland in 1973, is much to this author’s chagrin, like most American films set outside New York or Los Angeles; it could have been shot anywhere and doesn’t seem to notice that it wasn’t. There is zero local color, no thought put into how place and culture may have shaped these people, their homes, their modes of speech and thought. Other than a few scant establishing shots of Lake Erie and other Cuyahoga County B roll, we can assume we’re in the place with the best tax rebates and its inhabitants are not the products of nature and nurture so much as they are of Syd Field screenwriting seminars.

Clive is some kind of genius; he’s on the verge of winning the state’s top high school mathematics prize and has invented his own non-syllabic language, but he also can’t seem to keep his face out of a bong and only has a passing affection for his fetching girlfriend Sandra (Michelle Tractenberg), although he clearly has an affinity for his equally remote best friend Elliot (Hale Appleman). Although no one else can, Sandra sees something in William no one else (audience included) seems to, particularly the flame he carries for her, one that he is helpless to conceal in even the most innocent, utilitarian glance. Simon and Judith, as much are they feign interest, are relatively clueless as to their children’s dispositions, emotionally and sexually – they seem more interested in making dinner for their neighbors, the Cubanos (Matt Servitto and Juliana Margolies), whom they’d spouse swap with it this were The Ice Storm.

William begins to make the moves on Sandra, who as played (overplayed might be more apt) by Ms. Trachtenberg, is eager to unleash her burgeoning sexuality but unsure just who to do it with. She cherry picks for compliments without seeming to try and is quick to raise mischievious eyebrow at any sign of a come on, but Davern’s William is obliged to be too hapless to notice until the third act. Mr. Call, who in this and on TV’s Rescue Me has shown quite a bit of promise, is far more interesting than either of his foils as the too smart for his own good, Asberger’s syndrome case waiting for a diagnosis, but his character is relegated to thankless and sudden victimhood by the film’s unimaginative writing as the film enters its final stretch.

Films like these can seem like a dime a dozen on the American festival circuit and Beautiful, Ohio, as odd as it may sounds, is probably one of the lucky ones – starting this week, you can find it at Blockbuster, with all the other coming of age family dramas, which undoubtibly include sibling rivalries, a youthful love triangle, a marriage in trouble and either flawed parental mentorship or a seemingly unbridgeable but ultimately surmountable disconnect between the values of the parents and their offspring. For every one that gets some modicum of critical favor and a dignified commercial rollout (think The Squid and the Whale), another five or ten surely struggle to find their way on the festival circuit, en route to a DVD release and a 2:00am screening on IFC Channel.

In the last decade, this genre has increasingly become a refuge for the intellectual laziness of the American independent film world. The audience waits for the next period music cue or antiquated fashion style, the next token appearance by a faded movie star grasping for indie credibility or young starlet or leading man making their way out of the morass of cheap horror and teen romance. With its widespread cultural, moral and sexual reevaluations, the final nails being driven into the coffin of American puritanical innocence, the early 70s are a fascinating time, but maybe it time to find some fresh ways of representing all the confusion, Zodiac notwithstanding.