Guessing Games

Reviews of the latest films.
Jan. 26 2001 3:00 AM

Guessing Games

The Invisible Circus explains too much; The Pledge doesn't explain enough. And The Wedding Planner just flies by. 

The Invisible Circus
Directed by Adam Brooks
New Line Cinema

The Pledge
Directed by Sean Penn
Warner Bros.

The Wedding Planner
Directed by Adam Shankman
Columbia Pictures 

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Every good novel presents a unique set of obstacles to screen adaptors, and the problems in Jennifer Egan's The Invisible Circus are especially twisty. Egan's narrative, faintly reminiscent of her gorgeously suggestive short story "Why China?" (available in the collection Emerald City), revolves around two sisters who have been mightily warped, in one case by a father's overattention, and in the other, by the combination of that father's underattention and fallout from damage to the older sister. What a Rube Goldberg contraption, the dynamics of a family! When the father is struck down by leukemia, the older sister, Faith, blames his "poisoning" on the big corporation where he worked (capitalism dunnit); this being 1969, she hurls herself into the counterculture, takes off for Europe, and months later turns up dead—apparently having thrown herself off a cliff.

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The novel begins seven years after the alleged suicide, when the younger sister, Phoebe, is still lost in the void left by Faith's death (the death of faith?). Hopelessly adrift, she decides to retrace her sister's European journey, along the way hooking up with Faith's boyfriend, Wolf, who might know more about her final days than he has let on. In the second half of the novel, Egan flashes back to Faith's search for transcendence through drug use and radical activism, but that material feels melodramatic and slightly second-hand. What keeps The Invisible Circus compelling is the foundation laid by its first third: by Phoebe's quest to get to the heart of her feelings of emptiness, and by our escalating sense of how intimate family traumas can end up being worked out on a global—and in some cases, deadly—scale.

This isn't, to put it mildly, natural screen material. The most enthralling stuff is locked in the psyche and tough to dramatize; the least interesting (Faith becoming involved with the Red Army Faction, Phoebe becoming involved with Wolf) the most "cinematic." The movie's writer-director, Adam Brooks, has chosen the obvious (maybe, to be fair, the only) path and jammed the first part of the book into 10 narration-packed minutes. He opens with Phoebe (Jordana Brewster) informing us in voice-over that her older sister apparently killed herself seven years earlier, telling (instead of showing) how bereft she feels, and then plunges straight into an argument between Phoebe and her mother (Blythe Danner) full of overexplicit dialogue (some of it straight from the novel) about dad's dark legacy. Then it's off to Europe—only with no real sense of urgency. There's no question that plenty is at stake, but the search for meaning that Egan evokes in transcendental terms simply hasn't been injected into our bloodstream.

The Invisible Circus works anyway, in a muted, literary way. The film is overnarrated and in spots overwritten, but Brooks, who's primarily a screenwriter (he collaborated on Beloved, 1998), does well with actors, and he has coaxed an extraordinary performance out of the young Jordana Brewster. A dark-eyed beauty with a sheet of black hair, she has a gift for seeming rapt and unsettled in the same instant—she has a burning stillness. Brooks and his cinematographer (Henry Braham), designer (Robin Standefer), and editor (Elizabeth Kling) kept Brewster at the center of their travelogue, and through her eyes the exotic locations (Amsterdam, Paris, the coast of Portugal) become a series of surfaces to be penetrated—a map that can only be read in an altered state and after enormous suffering. In the thankless role of Wolf—he's alternately passive or deceptive or both—Christopher Eccleston is magnetic: Every gesture is pregnant, weighted, born of guilty inner struggle.  

Cameron Diaz is Faith, and it's worth seeing the movie to watch her long, bell-bottomed form as it sways ecstatically behind the opening credits. The actress's naturally sunny disposition makes her character's journey into darkness especially heartbreaking: It isn't right that she should brood this way, it's a waste of such radiance. That radiance returns at the moment of death, and Diaz makes Faith's fate seem terrible, tragic, unforgivable—and aesthetically right.

When Sean Penn went on talk shows to promote his first directorial effort, The Indian Runner (1991), he spoke so softly that you could almost hear the sound people falling all over themselves to get the microphone closer and jack up the volume. It's not as if Penn didn't know how to project his voice: This was just his actorish his way of signaling that he was there as an auteur and not as an entertainer. He was saying, "My integrity prevents me from coming to you. You need to work to pick up what I'm saying." It was a revealing performance: It captured the mulish gloominess of his movie and also of the next one he directed, The Crossing Guard (1995). Penn could evolve into a terrific director—he knows how to move the camera and to make the space a character, and he's obviously in sync with actors. But he has to ditch this bum role he has embraced—the taciturn Swede, the winter boy.

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Penn's new film, The Pledge, is fitfully haunting and impressive: a little less loitery and opaque and it might have been a classic. The protagonist (Jack Nicholson) is a Reno detective on the eve (literally) of retirement. When the raped and brutalized body of a little girl is found in the snowy mountains outside the city, he makes a promise (on his "soul's salvation") to the child's mother (Patricia Clarkson) that he'll capture the killer; and when he suspects that the mentally handicapped Native American (Benicio Del Toro) who has confessed to the crime didn't really do it, he sinks into a kind of obsessive stupor—shaping his life in "retirement" so as to come face to face with a killer that he alone believes is still out there.

Probably Hollywood executives have watched this movie and remade it a thousand times in their heads, trimming the longueur, diluting the aura of hopelessness, substituting a bang-bang climax. That would have amused Friedrich Durrenmatt, whose 1957 novella of the same name—really no more than an extended anecdote—is framed as a rebuke to creators of detective fiction who would devise such a tidy resolution. Durrenmatt's The Pledge is the forerunner of the kind of "existential" mysteries that became fashionable in the late '60s and '70s, the ones that set out to demonstrate that the genre, with its roots in scientific rationalism, was false to nature—that events which are the product of chance and chaos can't be understood via linear logic. This isn't as world-shaking a theme nowadays, but the novella's other subtext—that people who become obsessed with avenging the loss of human life often end up losing touch with their own humanity—continues to sting in our vigilante-crazed culture; and Penn has stayed with that idea and delivered a bleak and ironic finale that eats into your mind.

If only Penn knew how to capture emotions besides hopelessness. The catatonic pacing doesn't always suit the action, and at times you can't tell if the direction is oblique or just inept. (The Pledge is as groggy as The Invisible Circus is pointed.) The fabulous supporting cast is a problem, too. Delighted as I was to see Vanessa Redgrave, one of the world's greatest actors, her brief appearance hurled me out of the movie, and the same can be said for the cameos of Helen Mirren, Harry Dean Stanton, Sam Shepard, and Tom Noonan. Mickey Rourke is very moving as the father of a murdered child, but this wreck of a character merges uncomfortably with this wreck of a fallen star.

How's Jack Nicholson? Stupendous enough to remind us that when he stops doing Jack Nicholson impersonations he's some kind of actor. It's too bad his character is numbed at the outset—he doesn't have far enough to slide. But it's fascinating to watch that face when it's set, when that mouth isn't halfway between a grimace and a leer and those eyebrows aren't madly arching. You can finally study Nicholson's visage, with its lines and pouches like no other old man's: How did they form? Without his antic mask, he actually appears to be in the moment, listening, a man who doesn't—for maybe the first time in decades—have the world dancing at his fingertips.

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