Friday, November 18, 2005

Day 49: Passion Fish

I caught John Sayles’ Lone Star sometime in high school and fell in love with the way he made movies.  I loved the density to the material, how it felt as rich and fulfilling as a good novel, and how it didn’t seem as cramped as movies usually do.  What I remember is that there was a world in Lone Star, a fully inhabited world that was efficiently explored through the characters.  While I loved it so much, I was not quite as diligent in pursuing Sayles’s oeuvre as I was for Cronenberg or Lynch (I think I stopped my random sampling after seeing Matewan, my personal favorite of his work), but I do enjoy checking in on his movies.  Anyway, this isn’t about me (ha ha ha, yes it is) it’s about Passion Fish.

The movie deals with a soap actress-turned-paraplegic (Mary McDonnell) and her caretaker nurse (Alfre Woodard).  McDonnell is an alcoholic, I guess, the movie kind-of slips this fact in at an awkward moment, and Woodard is a recovering drug addict.  Over the course of their relationship, they begin to need one another to face the various challenges of their lives.  Dangerous territory and the shallowness of Lifetime Movies of the Week hang over this film, threatening to descend at any moment and ensnare us in manipulative weepiness.  To be fair, most of the pitfalls are avoided along the way in favor of straight-forward honesty.  This is what makes it frustrating when the movie does fall into one.  The montage sequence when McDonnell begins to care about her life again, taking pictures, and working out, is inexcusable.  And the very end of the movie features a conversation in which the mutual power-sharing dynamic between the two ladies, a carefully balanced see-saw throughout the movie, is destroyed by thrusting all power into McDonnell’s hands, giving her the opportunity to act silly-poignant which comes off as trying-too-hard-poignant.

And so, if it can be said that John Sayles’s movies are a lot like books, this is his Oprah Book of the Month.  It’s not bad, though it’s somewhat plodding, and it’s not great, though there are some dazzling moments.  The two main characters are strongly etched with, for the most part, great writing and strong acting.  There’s some outright awful sentimentality (the very end and in the “Mary McDonnell works out” montage) but, aggravatingly, there are also moments where sentiment emerges in a sublime fashion: Woodard’s repressed sobbing in response to the ministrations of a suitor are touching for what she’s not saying or talking about.  There’s sharp characterization throughout:  William Mahoney, playing Mary McDonnell’s uncle, is fascinating when he’s onscreen and David Strathairn puts in a typically well-wrought performance.  And the racial tensions in the movie (at least between the two main characters) are subtly done, palatable, but not overt.

The structure of the movie vacillates so wildly between well-constructed scenes, well-performed monologues, pedantic scenes, and misguided monologues (I never asked for the anal probe), that it’s frustrating to watch.  Additionally, after the third party came to visit McDonnell, I got sick of the characters sitting around at home, waiting for other characters to visit them.  I wanted to like this movie a lot, and I did like it a lot when the movie focused on Alfre Woodard’s character, but its scattered nature makes it a frustrating viewing experience and it doesn’t really come together as a whole.


Redphi5h said...

The use of the montage seems to have died down a bit, thank god, but they used to be so popular. If ever a director needed to show someone learning a skill, training athletically, preparing for battle - montage, montage, montage!

David Wester said...

Team America: World Police had a funny spoof of this phenomenon with the song, "you need a montage."

jojoware said...

I remember liking Passion Fish when i saw it, after it first came out on video. Years later, i realize that it's definitely not Sayles' best movie. Lonestar is definitely his best, but Limbo is close. You need to see Limbo, and i apologize in advance for the effect it will probably have on you.