Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 21, 2002
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Alabama, Asparagus, and Eternal Life
Tuck Everlasting has an incredible cast -- three academy award
winners for best actor or actress. Merely to assemble William Hurt, Sissy
Spacek, and Ben Kingsley into the same film would make it worthy of note.
But Tuck is more than a mere casting stunt. Natalie Babbit's classic
story for young readers, about a family that has found a way to live forever and
how dearly it costs them not to die, is one of those fragile tales that depends so
much upon the manner of its telling that you can't imagine that anyone could
make a good movie out of it.
And, in fact, it couldn't be done. The story, as it was, depended for much
of its pathos on the internal feelings of a ten-year-old girl, including her
romantic yearnings for one of the Tuck boys. That is charming in a book, but
repulsive to depict onscreen, where unspoken feelings usually have to be
spoken for the audience to know they're there.
So the filmmakers made the correct choice -- they made the heroine
older, old enough for a genuine romance to develop and be shown on screen.
Those who look for an absolutely faithful recreation of the book,
therefore, will be disappointed.
But nobody else will. The acting is superb -- and not just by the
academy award winners. The moral dilemma is painful but moving. The
filming makes you fall in love with the American landscape all over again.
Tuck Everlasting is an American film with a telling message -- that there
is no such thing as a gift without a price. To people prone to self-praise --
you've heard of "the world's only superpower?" -- that is a constantly needed
I'm sorry, but I just can't get past the idea of an asparagus portraying a
prophet of God. So Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie is not a film I was eager to
see. Nor did the film convert me to the idea that scriptural stories translate
well to cartoon silliness.
Having confessed my biases, I must now admit that despite my
resentment of the trivializing of religion that I take seriously, I found much to
enjoy about this movie.
The animation is well done -- to the point where the fact that these
veggies have no hands and yet still manage to pick things up, steer a bus, and
play a guitar didn't actually bother me.
There is a serious attempt to be faithful to the scripture -- to the point
that the "cute" caterpillar character turns out to be a genuine figure from the
Book of Jonah.
There's a kind of earnest charm to the whole enterprise that helps you
tolerate the on-the-nose moralizing and the really bad songs.
And, if you are a compulsive viewer of credits, you get a reward -- the
only genuinely clever song in the entire film comes at the tail end of the credits.
But for me, the best part about that last song was that the employees of
the Carousel who had come in to clean the theater sang lustily along, to the
great enjoyment of the last stragglers from the audience. I can't guarantee
they'll do it after every showing, but to me it was worth the price of admission
for that alone.
Last week I slipped into my column a brief endorsement of Sweet Home
Alabama. Now, having seen it a second time, I want to explain to you why the
critics who have been attacking this film are clearly out of touch with what
regular people go to the movies for.
There is no art harder than comedy, and of all kinds of comedy, none
more difficult to bring off well than romantic comedy.
Academy awards and critical recognition tend to go to films that do
something splashy or dramatic or downright ugly (i.e., "edgy"), or to actors who
portray physical or emotional cripples.
But such films are far easier to do well than a film about good people
trying to do good -- yet, in the end, such a film has far greater value, as art
and as a contribution to our culture, than any number of "edgy" films.
Why? Because a film like this fills the audience with love and the
yearning for love, and with a script for how to be kind and decent in the midst
of loss and disappointment.
And yet if you ever catch a hint that the filmmakers have such a serious
purpose in mind, you'd turn away. So Sweet Home Alabama keeps you
laughing so much you don't ever really notice you're being taught important
and truthful lessons about how to live your life.
This movie is funny. Yet its humor comes without being mean to
anybody. With one harmless exception (Candace Bergen's standard
charmingly wicked caricature), the actors are so unfailingly honest, the writing
so extraordinarily real, that what could have been a collection of stereotypical
southerners becomes instead one of the most loving homages to smalltown life
that I've ever seen.
Reese Witherspoon can carry a movie. Hers is the only name above the
title, and deservedly so.
But every actor in this film contributed to its excellence. Fred Ward and
Mary Kay Place made genuine characters out of parts that could have been
played for cheap laughs. Jean Smart gets only a few lines, but makes us love
her character (Jake's mom). Ethan Embry is absolutely charming as Bobby
Ray, and I hope to see more of him.
The real surprises in this movie, though, are the two men who make up
the rest of the romantic triangle -- Josh Lucas as Jake, Melanie Carmichael's
supposed-to-be-ex-husband, and Patrick Dempsey as Andrew Hennings, the
politico son of the very rich mayor of New York.
Dempsey has had a long but undistinguished career, but in this film
brings off an extremely tricky and subtle balancing act and makes me hope
that from now on he'll start getting better roles. When he delivers the line "So
this is how it feels," you are seeing extraordinarily real acting.
Josh Lucas, who has been in a lot of movies that I haven't seen, has a lot
more going for him than Paul-Newman-blue eyes. This film demands great
subtlety from him, as he makes several important transitions while remaining
the same person.
The key moment in his performance -- the thing that tells you that he is
potentially one of our best actors -- is at the end of the scene in the dog
cemetery, when he pushes Melanie away and looks at her with an incredible
mixture of love and pain and longing and regret. That face, folks -- that's what
makes great film acting.
Director Andrew Tennant deserves credit for bringing out the best in all
these actors, and for maintaining a perfect balance between comedy and
reality, between humor and pain. And as one of the three credited writers, he
shares the honors for having created one of the most delicately dead-on comic
scripts in years.
I think this is the best movie I've seen this year.
And when other critics disagree with me -- and most of them seem to --
all I can do is shake my head and feel sorry for them, because they've lost
touch with what a good movie is, and why people go to them.