The Reeler


October 18, 2007

Reservation Road

Like bad teenage poetry, Terry George's clumsy melodrama insists solely on its own tragedy

Two houses, unalike in dignity

In fair Connecticut, where we lay our scene,

From contrived grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood...

Ah, fuck it. Some dramas are bad but unintentionally entertaining in their overreaching; some are mediocre but feature at least a few fine-tuned performances; some are competent but unoriginal Oscar-bait. Adapted from John Burnham Schwartz's novel, Terry George's Reservation Road -- like In The Bedroom and House Of Sand And Fog, its immediate predecessors in the domestic-tragedy-from-respected-fiction-source micro-genre -- is overwrought and unabashedly allegorical, begging us to consider the implausible events on screen as a fresh and convincing examination of how revenge corrodes the soul. This movie corroded mine, at any rate.

We open on the pretty, scrubbed landscape of Connecticut: dinghies sailing in pristine weather, charming old houses, a lack of urban blight. But if there's one thing the movies have taught us, it's that no place is too idyllic to harbor the soul's worst instincts. In one car, college professor Ethan Learner (Joaquin Phoenix) is driving his nuclear family -- wife Grace (Jennifer Connelly), adorable tyke Emma (Elle Fanning), and firefly-obsessed 10-year-old Josh (Sean Curley) -- home from a nice, clean day's entertainment and family bonding at an outdoor concert. Coming the other way is Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo), speeding along in a desperate effort to get his son Lucas (Eddie Alderson) back to his ex-wife (Mira Sorvino) in a timely fashion after a Red Sox game runs late. The Learners pull over to a gas station, and Josh gets out to release a firefly; barreling down the road, Dwight swerves to avoid a lane-crossing driver, hits Josh and drives off in a panic.

Commence weeping. Ethan internalizes the tragedy, spending all his time online in online chat groups for parents in similar boats. Like, say, Charles Bronson in Death Wish and all its many imitators, he's struck by how all he can expect is "the law, not justice." Names define character: Grace loses hers as Connelly dives into another weepy role, moping in sweatpants and milking her anorexic, haunted look for all it's worth. Ethan becomes not the teacher but the learner (deep!), boning up on the legal system's inadequate prosecution protocol. Meanwhile, Ruffalo conveys moral erosion by jogging with an increasingly frenzied look on his face. Inevitably, Ethan begins searching for the hit-and-run perpetrator and hires a lawyer to help him; in the single most boneheaded movie coincidence of the year, that lawyer turns out to be Dwight, who ratchets up the desperate look on his face in turn.

The clumsy scenario above is no exaggeration; every beat seems like a blurry copy of every movie to ever address this subject. Forget Tarantino-aping auteurs who quote movies tiresomely; this might be the only film where I wished the characters had watched more movies -- maybe In The Bedroom, for that matter -- anything that might stop them from going through the cinematic cycle of grief as if no one had ever committed it to film before. Phoenix rasps, Connelly cries, Ruffalo broods. (Out in the cold, Sorvino conveys no emotions whatsoever, mercifully sparing us from a quartet of histrionic overkill.) Forget their plight; I was dying just watching it.

Reservation Road wants to be an "adult" drama about complex kinds of grief; instead, it's laughably simple-minded. In and of itself, a mediocre movie is not the greatest possible offense against cinema, but as Reservation Road plodded along, I found myself increasingly angry. Is trash like this really passing for grown-up fare? Have we as a society grown so dumbly, reflexively responsive to anything that insists on its own importance? Do ham-handed performances that convey little more than hysteria and anger get nominated for Oscars because they bluntly evoke painful emotions? Even the tech credits are rote: Connecticut looks as bland as New England always does onscreen, and Mark Isham's terrible score belongs in an elevator for the suicidally depressed rather than in a theater.

This is the worst film of at least the last two years, and yet I can just see the hordes of 40-somethings emerging from the cineplex, smugly declaring how refreshing it is to see an adult film about serious issues with great performances rather than more explosions, sex and violence. In this peculiar segment of movie hell (which seems to target Landmark Theaters and token Oscar nods) a monochromatic obsession with the crudest, most obvious facets of pathos seems to have been mistaken for adulthood, as if it precludes any mood but depression. Emotional complexity seems to escape this cohort, and it certainly escapes George: Like bad teenage poetry, Reservation Road insists solely on its own tragedy.

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