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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 reminder.

*

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.


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