Friday, April 18, 2008

"The Life Before Her Eyes" -- *

Vadim Perelman's odorous, laughably heavy-handed "The Life Before Her Eyes" is a difficult movie to properly bitch about without giving away its silly, gimmicky ending, but I'll try my best. Equipped with a stifling gloom, a delusion of self-importance, and sub-par performances and writing, it's easily one of the more insufferable movies to be released so far this year. Even those who usually fall for the self-imposed credo of 'if it's depressing and/or arty, it must be good' will have trouble jumping on board with this misguided mishmash of ideas centering around a school shooting. Employing a literalism that spells out everything repeatedly, as well as symbolism that is spelled out even more (a character gives an out-of-nowhere monologue about the human body being made up of mostly water, before we get multiple sequences where the camera lingers on shots of water), this is insulting drivel every step of the way.

Kicking things off with heavily ominous opening credits featuring Jame's Horner's alternately interesting and dull score over colorful close-ups of flowers blooming (seemingly tailor made for the film's original title, "In Bloom"), "Life" announces its very pretension almost instantly. Peppered throughout the film are beautiful, pointless extended shots of bees in pollen, caterpillars on leaves, and ants eating a dead bird. Admittedly, the cinematography by Pawel Edelman is often beautiful to look at, but there's nothing behind the images; they're used purely to draw attention to themselves and away from from the film's vapidity (e.g: "Ooh, look at that beautifully lit shot of the lone corpse in the gym!"). Sequences are staged for their maximum metaphoric potential, semblance of "purpose" and, occasionally, simply for their look; any scene involving water, most memorably a swimming sequence, is shown to us more than once for no reason other than it's pretty. No matter where we turn, everything seems to be screaming "This is a work of art, damn it!"

Based on Laura Kasischke's book, “The Life Before Her Eyes” is divided into two disparate time periods. The first focuses on two Connecticut teens, 17-year-old rebel Diana (Evan Rachel Wood), and her conservative, religious best friend Maureen (Eva Amurri). The film opens with these two being confronted in their high school bathroom by a fellow student with a machine gun, who demands they choose which one of them he'll kill. This sequence is intercut with the months Diana and Maureen spend together leading up to that point, and with Diana 15 years later (now played by Uma Thurman) as she copes with the anniversary of the massacre. Now married to a professor (Brett Cullen) and having a rebel daughter of her own (Gabrielle Brennan), Diana struggles to deal with the seemingly endless problems in her life.

I'm all for depressing or draining movies (some are among my all-time favorite films), but here, melancholy is confused with resonance, and the weight of the dour tone and horrible events taking place are more suffocating than they are poignant. There's such a steady stream of horrible things happening to Diana that one wonders why she hasn't killed herself yet. Not only does she apparently feel guilt over the events of 15 years ago every minute of her life (it doesn't help that she never moved away and drives past the school every day to work), she can't sleep at night, she has horrible flashbacks every few seconds, her daughter has a tendency to act up, run away and hide for hours at a time, and her husband appears to be cheating on her. And let's not even get started on the shit she went through as a teenager.

Even with the pretentious melodramatics, this is a film that could have been salvaged somewhat by the performances, but they're equally misguided. Thurman at least is trying her best, but her work here is in line with my past theory that she only turns out strong performances when working with Tarantino. I've found her to fall short of what the character demands in virtually everything else. Driving her daughter to school, Diana seems barely functional, wildly overdoing the "I'm shaken up!" routine, making one curious how she's managed to make it this far in life. Still, even as a psychologically damaged woman, she looks pristinely beautiful and made up, and is supposed to be believable as a professor merely because she's wearing glasses. To be fair, it'd be nearly impossible to anyone to capably deliver this dialogue, but her work doesn't help. Gabrielle Brennan as her daughter is equally not up to the acting challenges, choosing instead to smirk and immobiley bark out line readings that sound like line readings (watching a violent shoot 'em up that makes Uma cry, she yells out: "It's funny mommy! Like a joke!"). They got Thurman and Wood, couldn't they afford Elle Fanning?

I'll momentarily toss aside the fact that Wood looks NOTHING like Thurman, and just focus on the performances themselves. Thurman may be weak, but Wood is outright bad. It might just be me, but critics seem to be biased towards pretty actresses who try really hard or act big, when they should really only get an 'A' for effort. In my eyes, Wood has yet to give a genuinely good performance, and this is easily the worst (or at least the most annoying) work from her yet. With her overexpressive face, trying too hard to get across emotions, and incressant crying, Wood deserves commendation for not taking cliched teen idol parts (and for apparently being a fan of some violent sex from current boyfriend Marilyn Manson), but it's hard to avoid the fact that she's just not a very good actress. I don't quite understand why everyone seems to like her so much.

After his startling, excellent directorial debut "House of Sand and Fog," Perelman seemingly wanted an appropriately depressing follow-up, but the material fails him here. He makes numerous missteps (including the obvious flashcuts to characters when Diana was in high school saying/doing the same things we've just witnessed modern-day characters saying/doing), but his hand is probably the least to blame; this screenplay is just awful. Perelman's next project is apparently an adaptation of Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged," and I can only hope that given the material, he'll have better luck next time around and utilize the strong direction he employed with his auspicious debut.

The screenplay by Emil Stern is pretty much irritating on every level, ranging from obvious to moralizing to cliched to exposition-filled. The dialogue, the construction and the plot mechanics all gnawed at my brain for the movie's entire 85 minutes. No character delivers a speech or reads a poem that doesn't metaphorically correspond with the movie's hammered-home themes and points (e.g.: that water monologue). In the Uma portions, we get subtle moments like Diana pointing out "She's just like me!" about her daughter, to her husband, as if we didn't get the point. The Wood sequences are even more problematic and annoying, but most of all, everything that goes on in that bathroom. Upon hearing the gunshots, Diana blurts out, "I know who it is. In trig class, he told me he was going to bring a gun to school. I thought he was kidding!" Hm, okay. One one level, this makes the character both an irrational idiot and an asshole who causes the deaths of dozens; on another, no one would EVER say (or admit) that!

But when the shooter barges in the restroom, we're not shown exactly what happens, and instead, the event is milked for the rest of the film. Every few minutes we come back to the bathroom to reveal a few seconds more, starting from the beginning of the scene each time. This is an event that has a duration of 60-120 seconds, yet takes up at least 10-15 minutes of the film's running time. It's exploitatively drawn out as long as possible, broken up throughout the movie with the promise of a film-shifting revelation at the end.


Speaking of said revelation, Perelman/Stern tosses so many "clues" at us, it becomes ridiculous. The only time I've seen this kind of jokey foreshadowing of an ending outside of parody was all the "8:2" references Paul Thomas Anderson put in "Magnolia," and there it worked because it was all subtle and very tongue-in-cheek. Here, it's grasping at actual meaning and verges on parody. Between the "Choose Life" bumper sticker on Eva Amurri's character's car and Uma repeatedly coming across "She's Not There" on the radio, I was ready to yell at the screen and ruin it for everyone. The twist ending we get is pretty stupid and reeks of phony import (like everything else in the film), and judging by my crowd's reaction afterwards (I heard numerous "What happened?"), I'm guessing audience confusion at festivals was a major impetus to change the title it screened under, "In Bloom," to the more explanatory/spoiler-y "The Life Before Her Eyes." The twist, aside from being utterly silly and implausible, attaches extremely questionable moral conclusions to the film, as well as lending the affair a disturbingly anti-abortion bent.


After premiering to jeers and scratches of heads at last year's Toronto Film Festival, 'The Life Before Her Eyes" is being thrust out haphazardly now, with Magnolia Pictures probably realizing it doesn't stand much of a chance without any prospects of awards or strong reviews. Midway through the proceedings, we see Diana has a stack of books including a copy of "Meaning of Flowers in Art," which I laughed at, considering the amount of flower close-ups we get to create a semblance of "importance" or "meaning." My guess is that the filmmakers either accidentally left their research in the shot, or some knowing, low-level crew member was playing a practical joke on Perelman and Stern. Either way, it's the one genuine response besides exasperation the movie provoked from me, and most people probably won't even get that out of it. A deft balance of forced artiness, pretension and horrible dialogue, "The Life Before Her Eyes" is a complete mess of a movie that will anger the few people it doesn't confuse.

"The Life Before Her Eyes" opens today in 7 theaters (four in Los Angeles, three in New York), expands to about 50 theaters in major markets (San Francisco, Scottsdale, Long Island, DC, New Jersey, Dallas, Austin, Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, Boston) on April 25th, and is scheduled to widen further (Denver, West Palm Beach, Atlanta, Baltimore, Honolulu, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Portland, Nashville, Houston) on May 2nd.


Anonymous Sammy Jo said...

Hey...Rob...first off...I saw this film in Toronto and there were no jeers, and in fact a good portion of the audience was crying. So, don't make statements you don't know to be true.
I'm truly sorry that you don't "get it", as you are the one missing out. It makes no fucking difference if Uma looks like Wood or not as there never was an Uma. Remember? So, if she projects herslef looking like Uma when she's grown, who can blame her?
This flawed young woman is struggling to find purpose in her life, and to escape the stereo typing that has been inflicted on her for being poor white trash in Connecticut. Her ultimate gesture of sacrificing her own future in favor of that of her best friend Maureen is heartbreaking.
As she lies dying, she envisions what her life might have been, and the closer to death she comes the more her vision unravels.
Also, the reason that you are in a minority about Wood's acting is because, she really is quite good. Do you prefer Hilary Duff? I know people who actually don't like Streep, I guess to each his own, but I happen to think that Wood and Amurri's performances make this film worth seeing.
Maybe you have to have been a teenage girl and have struggled to fit in to have empathy for Diana.
At any rate, go enjoy your lame comedies about titty fucking.

5:29 PM  
Blogger bruce said...

Leave Evan Rachel Wood alone, you bully!

7:18 PM  
Blogger Sarah Bee said...

Thank you. So much. Seriously.

I've just watched this film and have since been desperately googling it to try and work out what exactly the ending was trying to tell me. Reading this review finally made the penny drop on a hideously confusing ending, and now I feel stupid for not realising what ought to have been glaringly obvious throughout the entire film.

9:28 PM  

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