Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Little Children

This is a much-delayed, tepidly felt, hastily written review of Little Children. Sound good? Let's go...

I read the book a few years ago, and despite being hyped by some reviewers as literary on the level of Flaubert, I found it pretty bland. There was nothing offensively bad about it (I know and respect several Tom Perrotta fans), but there wasn't a single sentence or paragraph I would have marked in order to one day find my way back to it. It read, in many ways, like a fleshed-out screenplay, so the existence of the movie isn't shocking.

The movie (which Perrotta helped write) has it all over the book, though a couple of glaring flaws keep it from soaring. It's sumptuously filmed, capturing suburbia in a slightly satiric way, but more interested in expertly capturing actual details (the change in the air before a thunderstorm, the distant sound of crickets at dusk that accompanies the power-walking conversation of two women in the middle of the street) than in turning the locale into a parody of itself. (I'm sure it's not, but wouldn't it be great if the lazy genre of Suburban Cartoonery was dead?)

OK, so it's sumptuous. As are its actors. You know you're dealing with a seriously attractive cast when Jennifer Connelly is playing the wife who’s being ignored. She’s being neglected for Kate Winslet, who everyone seems to agree you can find attractive while feeling virtuous, even though she is, empirically, hot.

Like the book, the movie suffers from fairly shallow themes (prosperous-but-vaguely-dissatisfied modern adults banging into each other, metaphorically and, in the case of one scene on a washing machine, not so metaphorically). Those themes are easier to put over in the movies, I think, with the right cinematography and the right talent, but while Little Children has both of those in spades, it’s saddled with one terrible choice, which is a third-person voice-over that occasionally narrates the action as if it were a novel.

This technique goes from annoyingly unnecessary (in the early scenes when Winslet meets Brad, the male lead played by Patrick Wilson) to actively problematic (it swoops in to annotate and destroy the more-than-sufficient work of the actors after a great moment in which Connelly begins to suss out what’s going on) to ludicrously bad (in the very final minute or two, which would make a list of the worst closing moments I’ve ever seen).

The second flaw is also a strength -- a subplot involving Ronald James McGorvey, a man recently released from prison (he served time for exposing himself to a minor), who moves in with his elderly mother in the neighborhood and is treated with grave suspicion by fearful local parents, and routinely harassed on a much more severe level by one man in particular.

That strand is a strength because both McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley) and his mother (Phyllis Somerville) are terrific, but the lessons it forces the characters to learn are heavy-handed. It’s indicative of the movie’s larger problem -- well acted, well shot, sometimes well written but essentially content to keep its characters two-dimensional, it devolves into a compressed series of pat epiphanies.



Anonymous jpw said...

I won't see the film because I don't want to enrich Tom Perrotta any further. I bought the book and was left wondering if he had perhaps bribed or slept with every book reviewer in America. What was all that praise about? "Bland" is spot-on. It was just neutral in every way. So bland and neutral that it inspired in me less readerly outrage at being gyped out of the price of a hardcover, but simple puzzlement. 'What the hell?'

11:47 PM  

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