Tuesday, 25 July 2006

A Map of the World (1999) DVD

Oprah Winfrey recommends this film. The rest of you stay far far away from it!

The DVD cover of A Map of the World should have a sticker in huge friendly letters that say based on a novel selected by Oprah’s Book Club for December 1999. It serves as a flashing neon come-hither to fans of Ms Oprah or followers of her literary tastes, and a warning to the rest us mortals of mush and sentimentality far in excess of the limits of human tolerance. Not only that, but the novels selected by Ms Oprah’s book club tend to be tedious, aesthetically-challenged products of literary-wannabes. You know, the overreaching type.

If not for Ms Oprah’s ringing endorsement, there wouldn’t have been a small cinema release for A Map of The World, or a DVD release. Just how sentimental, bad, and stupid exactly is the book and the movie it is very faithfully based on?

Sigourney Weaver stars as Alice, a mother of a family newly relocated from the city to a rural town in Wisconsin. Her entire world is filled with stock characters from melodramatic weepies, such as a mentally and emotionally absent milquetoast of a husband (David Strathairn, finally cast as a parody of his trademark autopilot, absent husbands), whose presence, like their two unlikeable and unmanageable young daughters, exist solely for Weaver’s character to emote the “mum on verge of breakdown and exhaustion, yet strangely spirited enough to comment sarcastically or wittily at all family members”. It’s an absolute stinker from the start, folks, because while Weaver can indeed convey the emotions of such a character, that character and her immediate family already come across as fake and pretentious as the pretensions of the novel’s author.

We are to believe that the mundane, pedestrian chores of childrearing, the loneliness of being married to a hat that that mistook itself for a man, and being relocated from the stressful city to Green Acres is so alienating that, when Alices’s best friend and neighbour Theresa’s (Julianne Moore) kid daughter takes an unsupervised swim in her pond and drowns, the guilt is enough to send her reeling to cuckoo land.

This movie might have been good if it concentrated on how the two mothers come to terms with their joint and individual guilt. It might have been good if it concentrated on how the town begins to ostracise Alice. There’s a certain plot development that marked the transition of this film from “interesting despite of flaws” to “just plain bad”.

I am talking here of the false accusation of sex abuse by a student of a school where Alice works as a dentist. It is then that you realise this movie falls into the genre occupied by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, where in pornographic detail, the hero of the genre movie is subjected to physically and emotionally painful ordeals, not because there is any redemption in sight or any value and significance to the suffering, but merely because The Hero(ine) Must Suffer. Unfortunately for viewers who didn’t fall asleep while watching the DVD, the director and scriptwriters present the most unreal, stupid and Illogical List of Ordeals ever to be subjected to heroines of melodramas.

Alice’s family is subjected to exclusion and pariahship, but even vicious adults in real life are sensible enough not to display their venom in front of their own children, for example. In this movie, they do that. Even smarmy, slimy lawyers (yes, there is a courtroom scene as well in this movie!) are not obnoxious enough in real life to pelt candies at the children of their clients. In this movie, lawyers get away with things like that, because milquetoast husbands are just so “with it” and full of sangfroid. Or maybe it was indifference. I wouldn’t blame David Strathairn for giving up on this movie, even though he is in the company of other big-name stars. And in this movie, black female inmates speak as though their white female novel authors have never met a person of colour in real life

Sigourney Weaver, bless her soul, never gives up with the script, and manages to give an energetic performance that manages to plumb the madness and grief of Alice. Unfortunately, this performance recycles the basic emoting from her far more superior and moving performance in Alien: Resurrection and The Ice Storm. Julianne Moore is very good, but is cast in such a small part that it hardly matters.

First published at incinemas on 25 July 2006

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