Friday, October 27, 2006

"Little Children" Review

*Possible Spoilers*

How ironic it is that Mary Ann, an obnoxious secondary caricature skewed in Todd Field's Little Children, calls for the castration of a recently released sex offender, because that is exactly what the director has done to Tom Perrotta's wickedly funny 2004 satire: neutered it into a depressing shell of what it once was. To be sure, Field has already proven he has considerable expertise behind the camera, and as a skilled screenwriter: 2001's In the Bedroom was a chilling three-act masterpiece built on silences and pauses. Its power lay directly in its ability to suggest rather than to underline what was discernible to an engaged viewer. However, Little Children proves the complete anti-thesis to this approach: there is no spark, no subtlety at work here. Adapted for the screen, the novel loses all its hilarious observations about suburban life through its cutting voice. To account for this loss, Field employs lazy techniques by way of an off-screen narrator who comes in and out, essentializing every character motivation to a point of ungainliness. It was enough to make me long for the transparent monologues of David Hare's work on 2002's The Hours. The result is not unlike watching a play-by-play visualization of the text, with the book-on-tape running in the background.

This is not to suggest that Field should have been lavishly faithful to Perrotta's text; a film version can rarely approximate the richness and detail of a novel. But it can still paint layers of its own, doing more than to simply reiterate the most important plot points and spots of dialogue in the narrative. This is essentially what Field does here. There are a few changes to modernize the story to reflect the current post-9/11 American climate; for example, Kathy's documentary now focuses on the families of slain soldiers in Iraq instead of WWII POWs, and there is the unmistakable sense of shared community panic in the air (consider how a day at the swimming pool turns ominous, or how the catty moms respond to Sarah kissing a complete stranger in front of her daughter.) But these updated elements are mentioned trivially and then dropped, not built upon further in the overall film. To be frank, this was a story best left in its literary medium: nothing is arrived at here that was not more potently advanced by Perrotta himself (who, funnily enough, also contributes to the script here.) Undoubtedly, it is a handsomely-mounted film, with every frame looking as well as could be imagined (those sex scenes!). But this only serves to accentuate how the film simply goes through the motions - its glossy, painted exterior fails to obscure the hollowness within.

The story concerns several adults living in a secluded suburban town, responding to the intrusion of a convicted pedophile into the community. His name is Ronald McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), and he has recently moved in with his elderly mother May (Phylis Somerville), who loves her son despite his actions. His presence in the neighborhood enrages several residents, none more so than than Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich), an unemployed ex-cop who dedicates his time to harassing McGorvey with threats and slurs. Meanwhile, the majority of the film's running time focuses on Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet), a stay-at-home mother who feels distanced from the life she now finds herself leading. Enter Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson), a gorgeous house-husband dubbed "The Prom King" by the moms that frequent the playground: Sarah and the hunk begin an affair that escalates from playing out fantasy to something much more serious. Meanwhile, Brad's wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) suspects something is "off" about their relationship, and takes a keener interest in this new friendship. Meanwhile, McGorvey finds it more and more difficult to fit in with the rest of the townsfolk (a date gone disturbingly sour proves all is not right in his head), and one tragic event sends him spiraling into darkness. To show how all these threads merge together is the primary aim of Little Children, indeed revealing that the title of the piece refers not to the toddlers of these unhappy parents, but to the immature and neglectful adults themselves.

However, the manner in which Field arrives at this conclusion is depressingly obvious: the ending goes the route of spelling out every lesson learned, giving each character their moment of recognition and epiphany. In the book, Perrotta avoids such moralizing - in fact, the conclusion mirrors the darkly funny tone the author was building throughout. The film throws all this out the window, showing us that Sarah finally accepts her maternal role, while Brad realizes that he should treasure what he already has. The worst change from the book is how the pathetic McGorvey ultimately resolves his guilt and sadness, and then how the vigilante Hedges responds to this shocking act of reparation. In the Bedroom's use of metaphor in the final scene was hardly abstract, but it still suggested more ambivalence and complexity about the film's themes than this unappealing turn. It is as if Field does not trust his audience enough to make the connection for themselves, so he makes the film's running motif literal. This complaint extends to the film overall: see how Field intercuts between a women's book club discussion of the title figure in Flaubert's Madame Bovary and an anal sex scene with Sarah and Brad - clearly, Winslet's expressive, troubled face is not enough to clue us in that she sees herself in the controversial character!

One area in which the film fully deserves its rave reviews is the casting: this is an eerily perfect ensemble enacting these parts, and two actors stand out in particular. Kate Winslet is, needless to say, astonishing as a once-Ph.D scholar who now feels completely disconnected from her new life as a wife and mother. The way in which she internalizes this sense of self-consciousness about herself and her body is just extraordinary. One scene that remains with me even now is Sarah's reaction to seeing Brad's bombshell wife Kathy for the first time: she immediately bursts into tears, horrified that she has to compare to such a effortlessly sexy ideal. On the flipside, Sarah can have her moments of boldness too: her scene at the pool when she tries to catch Brad's eye with her body-hugging red swimsuit is terribly amusing. This is the kind of introspective, unfussy turn that truly deserves awards attention: the problem is that Winslet is so convincing as a bad mother that it might turn voters off such an unsympathetic character. Additionally, Jane Adams (who played Joy in Todd Solondz's Happiness, and appeared quickly in another Winslet film Eternal Sunshine...) has two short but memorable scenes as Sheila, the unfortunate woman who has dinner with McGorvey one night. Deeply miserable and carrying the weight of several breakdowns on her shoulders, Adams is heartbreaking as she tries to make light conversation, speaking and squinting at her date as though she were trying to communicate through a blanket of thick fog. Wilson, Connelly, Earle Haley, Somerville, and Emmerich are all brilliant as well, not one miscast individual in the group.

Who is included and excluded in definitions of community? How do we respond when encountering the "other"? Is happiness situated in the American dream of suburban bliss? These are the questions Little Children attempts to grapple with and explore through the stories of these naïve and foolish characters. However, the film still comes up short as a three-dimensional satire, actually saying quite little. Especially in relation to the source material, the film seems simply unnecessary in all respects except for featuring several fine performances. As an acting showcase (especially for the super-talented Kate Winslet), it's right on the mark. As for a successful adaptation or even a dramedy on its own terms, I cannot say I feel the same way. C


Anonymous said...

Great review. Nice to see you back too. :P

I really need to see this movie though - it's obviously incredibly polarizing. But I always kind of knew that's how it would be. Perrotta's novel would be tricky tricky material to adapt to screen.

Ali said...

Thanks. I had my fears after reading the book too, but the strength of Field's last film had me confident that he could pull off the tone. It's definitely worth seeing for the cast though (as if I didn't make that clear enough! ;)

Anonymous said...

Really good review. Glad to hear Winslet is good and deserving of her praise. I'll probably be checking this out when it hits cinemas at the weekend.

Kamikaze Camel said...

I haven't seen Little Children (not out here yet), but how can you give The Lake House a B? That movie was awful like so few things this year have ever been.

Ali said...

The Lake House far from a great film, but at least it has more ambition and heart than all the cookie-cutter romantic comedies/dramas of late. I also liked that they didn't try to illuminate the mystery of how they were able to communicate with each other. The couple simply acknowledged it, and then went on writing back and forth. It has some lovely cinematography, and both Bullock and Reeves were surprisingly understated.

Flawed? Absolutely. Awful? Can't say I agree even a tad.

JavierAG said...

Great review, Ali. The Kubrickian trailer had me excited at first, but none of the "positive" reviews seem very convincing, or convinced (when is ambition and ambition alone cause for praise?) I think this review is far more honest.

Nick M. said...

Commendable job, Ali. As you said to me, I suppose I don't have to write a review of the film now.

You're absolutely right -- the film, an ostensible satire, is disappointingly heavy-handed, tonally confused and ineffectual. It gives no insight into the plight of suburban malaise and really has no idea what to do with its irony. It's simply absurd in the worst possible way at times -- especially when "focusing" on Noah Emmerich's caricature.

sushiandrice said...

nice review - always happy to see a Jane Adams mention

Gillian said...

Aaaah... this review seems to be as much about you and your expectations as it was about the film. Perhaps that is the case for all reviews.

I just saw the movie on DVD, having heard nothing about it and not having read the book. The only actor I recognised was Kate Winslett. And I'm not American. So, I had my own perspective.

From this place the movie was refreshing and engaging. In fact, it didn't miss a beat. I loved the nuances I saw all through it, especially the tenderness with which the film treated all the flawed characters. The big message for me was that everyone is flawed. We are all limited and vulnerable. We all need to be addressed with humility and tenderness.

Even the rigid, critical playground mothers were treated with neutrality. And everyone else was presented with deep kindness.

Great performances and wide humanity in this film. Here is a director with a deft touch. I want to see more of his work.

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