The Big Chill
Overwrought Family-Tragedy Drama Hamstrung By Immature Script
Is there some law of inverse SAT usefulness that the more vocabulary refreshers a screenplay provides, the less worthy it is of your time? In the first five minutes of Things We Lost in the Fire we bone up on the meaning of "fluorescent"--lit from within, according to Dad (David Duchovny) edifying his son Dory (Micah Berry), prompting the boy's totally inane and mock precocious follow-up query: "So am I fluorescent?"--and "sedated," as the family's daughter Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) wonders why Grandma is sleeping all day. This time, mom Audrey (Halle Berry) is the one with the definitions, explaining that Grandma is drugged to help speed the shock of the tragedy that's befallen their family. On an otherwise banal ice-cream run last night, Dad intervened in a domestic dispute in the parking lot and was shot dead. Mother and daughter bear this hurt stoically, the daughter leaning against her mom not in the way a real bereaved child would, all red-faced and racked with sobs, but in a Madonna and Child tableau of stylized suffering that offers the best view of the moisturized glow emanating from Berry's flawless toffee complexion. Fluorescent, you might say.
Among the loose ends to tie up after her husband's death is the notification of his ne'er-do-well best friend, Jerry (Benicio Del Toro), a squinty-eyed wreck (does Del Toro specialize in anything else?) holed up in a welfare hotel and suffering from a nonspecific strung-out syndrome. Audrey despises Jerry, for reasons that aren't clear except for an exasperation over her late husband's ghastly propensity for performing horrible codependent rituals like taking Jerry out for dinner on his birthday. But when a newly sober Jerry shows up at the funeral in a clean suit and doesn't nod out into the hummus and pita chips, something shifts in Audrey. She invites him to stay at their house, in the garage that now sits empty after a fire destroyed much of the family's memorabilia stored within, and takes pains to integrate him into the family. Everyone, in fact, from the kids to the business partner neighbor (John Carroll Lynch) embraces this skeezy interloper with an inexplicable avidity. True, he's not such a bad guy, but less than a dozen weeks before he was smacked out on a greasy mattress. How sleepless do you have to get before you invite your late husband's abhorred buddy into your bedroom and insist he snuggle close to you and stroke your earlobe to lull you to sleep?
Blame for this bathetic mess can't be laid at the feet of Danish director (and Dogme 95 alum) Susanne Bier, who actually has a pleasing knack for photographing faces, giving tight closeups full roaming screen space without once making you feel like a fly on a collision course with someone's eyebrows. It's the lukewarm screenplay by neophyte Allan Loeb (a former compulsive gambler who recently hit the big time after several of his scripts generated disproportionate insider buzz in Hollywood) that's problematic from the get-go. It's easy to see why this dullsville story attracted names such as Berry and Del Toro, as it calls for many scenes of the kind of gymnastics--shrieking, crying, shooting up, spazzing out--that actors think puts them on the bullet train to Oscar. But the emotional fundamentals that should drive a pocket-sized drama like this just aren't in the story's floppy backbone or its broadly sketched and blank characters. When Audrey and Jerry lean in for the inevitable kiss, it's less driven by two adults' needs and more about the way men's and women's faces smash together like magnets in all movies.
A yawn and a chore, Things We Lost in the Fire is an unremarkably dull and contrived trudge through the wasteland of "redemption" and "closure" and all the other pleasant little tourist traps that dot the highway of counterfeit reconciliation with life's tragedy. In the absence of real, heartfelt drama you may find yourself longing for a little bump to get you through the full span of reels. What's that vocabulary word again? No, not "fluorescent." The other one.