Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

film

-- film -- quick take review: a home at the end of the world

The truly quick take review: If you've read the novel (or listened to the audiobook), you'll be sitting there thinking, "What the hell did they do to this story?" If you haven't read the novel, you'll be sitting there thinking, "What the hell is going ON?"

The longer review:

My original feeling about the film A Home at the End of the World, based on the novel by Michael Cunningham, was that I wasn't sure I wanted to see it. I only heard of the film's existence in the first place after great Colin Farrell penis controversy blew up, which didn't augur terribly well for it; you'd think that somewhere in all that mess, people would have mentioned whether or not the film was any good, after all, and they didn't.

I first read the novel on which the film is based years and years ago, and my memory of it was as a quiet, interior story, and one that wouldn't adapt well to the sorts of things that would need to be done to "open it up". Not that you would need to add more locations, more scenery -- the novel's got locations a-go-go -- but that it was all internalized narration, that without having an obtrusive voice-over narrator for each of the parts, you couldn't make the story work, because the audience would never know what was going on.

However, when I tried to find my copy of the novel, I couldn't locate it, so instead, I downloaded the audiobook from Audible, featuring Colin Farrell, Dallas Roberts as readers, reprising their film roles of Bobby and Jonathan, respectively. It did give a certain impression of how Farrell and Roberts intended to approach their roles. It also confirmed my impression that managing the story could only be a nightmare for the director and screenwriter -- rotating first-person narration between the characters of Bobby, Jonathan, Jonathan's mother (Blair Brown in the book, and Sissy Spacek in the film) and Claire (Jennifer van Dyck in the audiobook, Robin Wright Penn in the film). Nope, didn't want to go see that film at all.

However, Warner Independent Pictures (and how, pray, can a studio possibly be independent and yet part of the Time Warner lump?) decided to do a free screening of the film in Chicago, and I wound up with a ticket and nothing better to do that night, so I went. And discovered that I should have followed my first plan of action, and waited for the video release. (Why they're doing a free screening after the film has already opened in New York and Los Angeles is a puzzlement. If they're hoping for positive word of mouth, they're going to be sorely disappointed.)

One of the truly astonishing things about the movie is that Michael Cunningham himself wrote the screenplay; in fact, he's the sole credited screenwriter. It's rare that you see novel authors writing screenplays for their own work. Still more rare is it for them to participate in the evisceration of their own work in quite this way. It may be that he feared that without his input Hollywood would make changes that he would find even less palatable, and they probably would have. Still, it means that the only other person he has to blame for the addled mess on the screen is the director, Michael Meyer. (According to IMDB, this is Meyer's first directorial effort. Which perhaps explains a few of the wrongheaded choices.)

Unfortunately, the storyline doesn't well survive the removal of a lot of the connecting bits between scenes. Transitions are terribly abrupt, and you never quite understand why the characters do what they do. The actors actually come off surprisingly well -- Robin Wright Penn in particularly is startling -- but they don't get a lot of help from either the script or director, and in a few places are actually hindered. Farrell's character in particular suffers from this. In the book, it turns out that Bobby does what he does quite deliberately, and you're aware to some extent that he's making specific choices here and there, even if you don't understand why until the end. In the film, he never gets the opportunity to make choices; he's just this sweet person who seems to drift into various situations. Some of the changes to Bobby's life made between the book and film simply make no sense. In the book, for example, his mother commits suicide, and what he sees partially as her willing desertion has an effect on him; in the film, she dies offscreen, and we don't know how or why. In the book, his father dies in a house fire caused by him falling asleep with a cigarette in his hand, so that in one fell swoop, Bobby loses all he has left; in the film, Bobby's father dies in his sleep. (Curiously, the film sets up the possibility of the fire by showing his father falling asleep with a cigarette in hand, but then does nothing with it.) Bobby does get one line later on which is clearly meant to explain what he's done -- except that he hasn't really done anything; the only actual choice he makes himself in the entire film is to move to New York from Cleveland. That one line actually winds up being a giant THIS IS FORESHADOWING placard; it becomes clear fairly quickly after that that what Bobby most fears is what's going to happen to him. O irony. Or something.

Sissy Spacek's character -- Jonathan's mother, Alice -- also suffers from being both underwritten and drastically changed from the original concept. In the novel, she's much more assertive, and her relationship with her son Jonathan is formed in large part by him trying to push her out of areas of his life where he feels she doesn't belong. A scene where he expressly tells her to get lost loses its power because in the film, it's just a time where she stumbled across them at an awkward moment (and an awkward moment that, moreover, has no reason to exist -- without her constantly pushing into his life, he doesn't have any reason to go out to the car to get away from her). In the book, it's outright hostility. In the film, this also results in a conversation between Jonathan's mother and Bobby that he would never have initiated; it's strikingly out of character. Unfortunately, it's the only way to get the entirely internal conversation Alice had with herself (in the novel) out where the audience can understand what's going on. In the book, there are two conversations in particular between Jonathan and his mother that develop both characters -- would have been maybe 10 minutes of screen time, tops -- but which never occur here.

The director (one assumes) also lightened the tone of the material, which does a sharp disservice to some scenes. For example, in the scene where Bobby winds up sleeping with a woman for the first time, the setup is very light hearted, and they talk about technique, which really isn't his concern. Moreover, at the end, he starts crying because he is genuinely upset, but because of the comparatively light setup the scene's been given, it comes across as crying because he's so happy that things went well. Frankly, I have no problems believing that audiences were laughing when Farrell's now-departed nude scene took place; the audience I saw the screening with was laughing at all sorts of inappropriate moments because the director kept mismanaging the tone and setups, and allowing or encouraging his actors to make some truly godawful choices in how to play some of the scenes. (That said, a full frontal nude scene at the point where it was clearly intended would have been natural, yes, but also totally unnecessary.)

They do make one major change near the end of the material which I truly hated, but which, given the constraints of a two-hour film in which characters are omitted and condensed, makes sense and is entirely understandable. But then they change the time in the storyline at which it occurs. One of the characters in the novel has a reaction to the original situation which would have served well here -- it would have made them less sympathetic but also given them a bit more depth and entirely been believable. Since the scene is moved after the big crisis, such as it is, the scene's only purpose is to feed back into Bobby's declaration slightly earlier in the movie. Again, O Irony.

As mentioned, most of the performances are amazingly good, especially given that the actors have precious little to work with. It's hard to tell how good or bad Farrell's performance is; Bobby is by design and intent a blank slate. Dallas Roberts' performance is note-perfect as Jonathan -- if you've read the novel, you'll appreciate it even more -- and as previously mentioned, Robin Wright Penn is astonishing as Clare; most people would never envision her in this role, and she does it quite well. (I will note for those who read the novel that the film makes a totally pointless but minor change to her character; rather than being an oddball jewelry maker, she now makes oddball hats. Why? Who knows?)

I would give this film two ratings:
- 1/2 star, for people who have read the novel. Really, you don't want to watch this mess; it's just aggravating.
- 1 and 1/2 stars, for people who haven't read the novel. For you, it's still a mess, but a somewhat more interesting one.

I have to admit, I hope that on the DVD, there's a commentary track with not only the actors, but also the director and writer, explaining the choices they made. That would be worth watching, just to understand how this wound up happening.

Posted by iain at 11:59 PM in category film