Wednesday, July 14, 2010

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Southern Belles and What the Hell?

From the opening credits, I immediately felt some worry about Crimes of the Heart. As each actress's name comes up, a cartoon heart falls through each in place of the letter "a" in their names: Keaton, Lange, Spacek. And then it falls in place of the "a" in the title. My first, cynical thought was, "What, did they cast these gals just so they could do that?" Having finished the film, I am convinced that I must be partly right.

Based on the play by Beth Henley (who also wrote the screenplay), Crimes of the Heart follows three days in the lives of three sisters, brought together when the youngest shoots her husband. From the picturesque houses and dusty roads, we can tell we must be in the South, and man do those shrill accents start in fast and furious. You think you'll get used to them over the 1 hr. 44 mins. of fighting, laughing, gossiping, etc., but you don't. Not all of them.

Sissy Spacek is the youngest sister, Babe, giving us the best performance in the film. Married at 18, Babe appears to have never grown out of her childhood, and even her costumes suggest the dresses of a child bride rather than the wardrobe of a senator's wife. Spacek has never been more lump-in-the-throat beautiful. While her co-stars make entrances and exits, Spacek strolls along, every movement completely fluid, every line flowing spontaneously. The girlishness she has after a meeting with her handsome lawyer is both touching and a little sad, and no matter how hard the script works against her, she manages to bring out the human being in Babe. Even though she shot her husband, even though she fooled around with a minor, even though she should probably be put in an asylum, we still manage to sympathize with her and hope for the best. Spacek was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, and for now I can't argue with that.

Jessica Lange is the wild one, Meg, who went off to California to be a star. She is the only other believable, interesting character in the movie. Her accent ain't too bad, neither. When she and Spacek come together, the movie is easy to get through. Fortunately, most of the film is between these two, the "outsiders" bound by their spontaneity and beauty (though Lange almost suffers in this department thanks to the most unflattering hairdo I've ever seen on a woman). She's sexy, funny, and full of life! Yet she also lets us in on that sadness, never going full tilt into tears or anything, but hinting at it here and there. When she lies to her sick grandfather about her success, we know it's just as much for her as it is for him.

Tess Harper was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as busybody Chick, their cousin and next door neighbor. It's a small role, and I guess it's meant to be the comic relief, but Sissy and Jessica already give us both the laughs and the pathos, so in the end it feels like Tess is there merely to provide some exposition. I mean, she sells the role, and except for her last, strangely miscalculated scene, she's a welcome sight. But Judi Dench's work in A Room with a View was passed over in favor of this, and that cannot be forgiven.

No, the real weak link here is the horrifyingly miscast, head-scratchingly underwritten Lenny, played by Diane Keaton. I love my Diane, but dear Lord in Heaven, what in the blue blazes happened here? It's a shrill, scenery-chewing turn, as she screams, slams things around, whips her hair about, and even leaps off of her feet (!!!) a number of times. Her accent is atrocious, and she appears to be playing everything for the benefit of the rear orchestra -- there's none of the subtlety or nuance that her earlier comedies and dramas showcased. Even the script seems uninterested in her, and for much of the movie she is relegated to the background, tilling in the garden as her sisters talk out their lives and share plot developments with each other.

I can't believe this is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning, Tony-nominated play. Beth Henley's characters are mostly whiny do-nothings, most of them amoral. A lot of it works, though, so obviously she knew what she was doing -- though so many inconsequential things occur, you'll wonder what THE POINT of it all is. I think the main problem here is director Bruce Beresford, who seems too entranced with the quaintness of The South to actually plumb the depths of despair and hurt Lange and Spacek are so desperate to explore. Sure, it's a comedy, but it's a DARK one, which means you can actually go for emotional truths and sincere moments. Tonally, it's a mess, going from dramedy to broad comedy to whatever movie Diane Keaton's in. Seriously, Spacek and Lange are the only people making sense, and that's probably because they have the only real characters.

Crimes of the Heart is not a terrible movie, but in the hands of a different director -- and with someone besides Keaton in the film -- it could've been largely enjoyable. It's half-interesting, half-forgettable. A real treat for Spacek fans, as I keep reiterating (she's just so good in this movie!), but it's not a must-see.

Academy Award Nominations
Best Actress - Sissy Spacek ***
Best Supporting Actress - Tess Harper **
Best Adapted Screenplay - Beth Henley **

Golden Globe Nominations
Best Picture - Musical/Comedy **
Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy - Sissy Spacek *** (WIN)


Andrew K. said...

Hee. I actually like this, I think all three women are equal and it makes me laugh :)

But I love seeing siblings on screen.

Unknown said...

Hmmm... dunno if I'll ever have the time or inclination to sit through this one. Thanks for the info though. I figure, if it's a chick-flick that you don't like, I definitely won't.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

Andrew - Your patience astounds me. ;)

Caleb - Your time is better spent elsewhere.