B y S t a c e y R i c h t e r
THERE HAVE BEEN commercials on TV lately where serious men with big strong arms stare into the camera and talk about how much Excedrin means to them. The emotional intensity of these spots is staggering--nothing is more significant, they seem to say, than using the right pill for the job. In fact, commercials in general have a dramatic weight that's all out of whack with the content. The actors are earnest, the lighting is dramatic, the music swells--and is it really such a big deal if Cindy has the sniffles? No, it's not such a big deal.
Crossing Guard, the new film written and directed by Sean Penn, suffers from the same kind of hyperactive intensity. It's a family drama with grand, Shakespearean themes, and every moment is dripping with tension, conflict and pathos. It's essentially a two-hour Excedrin commercial. As you can imagine, it gets pretty exhausting. The story involves Jack Nicholson and Angelica Houston, an estranged couple haunted by the death of their young daughter at the hands of a drunk driver. Nicholson, not surprisingly, plays a character who's slid into that antechamber of despair where one sneers, exudes bitterness and binges at strip clubs. Houston is remarried and has her life annoyingly together. Tension breaks loose when the guy who killed their child is realeased from jail and Nicholson decides his mission in life is to murder him.
As it turns out, the drunk driver is genuinely remorseful and reformed. David Morse is magnetic as John Booth, a man trying to come to terms with his guilt. He's nice, he lives with his parents, he visits the little girl's grave. It's Nicholson, intent on revenge, who seems to be the inhuman one.
All this sounds like the stuff of great drama, and at moments Crossing Guard is pretty great. Sometimes the arc of the plot and the experiences of the characters actually are profound, but the rest of the time the light slants and the music churns but nothing seems to be happening. Nearly all the scenes have an undeserved emotional charge and inevitably end in conflict. These characters can't get along, even for a few minutes. The word "overwrought" springs to mind.
The structure of the film forces the intensity even further. Penn cuts repeatedly between Nicholson hanging out with cigar-smoking men in strip clubs to Morse, the reformed drunk driver, hanging out with idealistic college students debating the nature of morality. This formula doesn't work for two reasons: First, Penn repeats it so many times you want to shoot him; and second, the equation of strip clubs equals degeneration is tired, lazy and sexist. Penn plops Nicholson among strippers as a kind of shorthand to suggest how emotionally bankrupt he's become, but really, what's so sinister about naked ladies? Stripping is totally legal and women do it for a variety of reasons, but probably none of them do it to represent man's dark side. If Penn wants to pick on a legal, seedy occupation, why not bail bondsmen?
For all its failings, Crossing Guard is peppered with engaging moments. Penn, of course, is an actor himself, and it's in the area of acting where he takes the most risks. Many of the scenes have an improvised feel, and there are a few heady moments, rare in movies, where what unfolds between characters feels honestly fresh and surprising. Most of these involve the charismatic Morse (from TV's St. Elsewhere). In fact, it's worth the price of admission just to watch him steal scenes from Nicholson, a man forever doomed to do the same shtick. Sadly though, a good portion of the improvisation conveys not spontaneity but an uninspired, acting-class feeling. The plot is just too contrived to support so much drama, and it ends up smacking of manufactured emotions.
Crossing Guard bears the marks of Penn's incomplete apprenticeship under John Cassavetes, a '70s-era filmmaker who made dramas full of improvisation and strange, powerful moments. Cassavetes often used actors with real-life relationships--he and his wife Gena Rowlands for example--and there's a sense of connection and tension that spills over on film. Penn seems to be aiming for this by casting Nicholson and Houston, a former item, as exes. The wonder of a Cassavetes movie like A Woman Under the Influence is that it seems as quirky and out-of-control as real life. Penn, on the other hand, has everything in Crossing Guard under control, from the carefully composed shots to the sometimes contrived plot. The artifice is obvious; there's only an illusion of spontaneity. Just as it's obvious that guy in the commercial doesn't really have a headache.
The Crossing Guard is playing at Foothills (742-6174) and Century Park (620-0750) cinemas.
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