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The Shipping News
Review written by: Alex Sandell



Julianne Moore could warm up the coldest of evenings.
(I know, that was cheesy.  Forgive me.)

Ever since Lasse Hallstrom directed the wonderfully quirky, oddly depressing minor masterpiece, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, I have been a follower of his career.  Not an avid follower, but I don't miss a film he releases, in hopes that he can recapture the semi-satirical small-town feeling of entrapment, and isolationism, that Grape did.  Unfortunately, up to this point, he hasn't.  

Hallstrom's follow-up to What's Eating Gilbert Grape was The Cider House Rules (about the closest any of Hallstrom's films come to The Shipping News), which succeeded in setting a charming, if doomed, love story against a bleak setting, filled with controversial topics such as incest, rape, loneliness and the death of a childhood hero.  All of this was book ended by an orphanage that performs illegal abortions on the side, and a man, morally opposed to the act, seemingly stuck there performing them for the rest of his life.  

While Hallstrom was, once again, able to pull incredible performances out of his actors in The Cider House Rules, he couldn't manage to squeeze out even the tiniest bit of black comedy that ran so abundant in What's Eating Gilbert Grape. Despite a few noble attempts, he failed at ever putting a lump in the audience's throat when a character lost something dear to him, or felt locked inside of a world that he wanted desperately to escape from. 

After The Cider House Rules came the sugary sweet, ChocolatChocolat, as all of the Hallstrom films mentioned above, and his current film, The Shipping News, was based on a contemporary, character-driven novel.  In anticipation of the film, I read the novel, and came away thinking that this could truly be the one in which Hallstrom lived up to the wonderfully miserable world of, What's Eating Gilbert GrapeChocolat was a bittersweet book, which Hallstrom immediately removed most "bitter" moments from, and left in, and expanded upon, all that was "sweet."  Like a box of chocolates, the film had its moments, but I felt as though I had to run to the dentist immediately after my initial viewing.  What seemed like perfect material for Hallstrom, ended up feeling more like something Steven Spielberg would create during his cheerier, slaphappy days of Goonies and Hook.

Finally we come to The Shipping News, and frankly, I don't know what to think.  I can tell you right now that this film is no What's Eating Gilbert Grape.  It's almost as though Hallstrom developed a creative mindful of untreatable cavities due to the excessive sugar-coated goo featured in Chocolat, and decided to make his darkest film yet.  It's as bleak as its setting would allow, and being that it's set in Newfoundland, that's pretty damn bleak.  It makes the darkest moments of The Cider House Rules look like an upper, and, although there are a few attempts at the blackest of black comedy that made What's Eating Gilbert Grape one of my favorite films ever created, they are surrounded by such an overwhelming gloom that they simply fall flat.  

Maybe it's just the mood of America right now, and the film is suffering from a case of bad timing.  After the events of 9/11, America would probably prefer something sappy like Chocolat, rather than a story that can become so cruel, at times, that it's literally startling.   One year ago, The Shipping News may have been Oscar material.  This year a film filled with adultery, rape, the nastiest of humans, a pinch of incest, and a few things I won't include in this review, at risk of spoiling all of the fun for you, thrown together with the blandest of acting, isn't going to be a crowd-pleaser, or Academy Award winner.  

Speaking of bland acting; there's an over-abundance of it in The Shipping News.  Kevin Spacey plays the character of Quoyle, a single father who loses his partner, a partner named Petal Bear, played by Cate Blanchett, who never loved him in the first place.  Spacey's character of Quoyle literally makes Droopy the cartoon dog look like a happy pup.  Even more bizarre, Droopy would be the cheeriest star of the film.  

After the mother of his son, and the love of his life, the one who never loved him, loses her life, Quoyle decides to follow Aunt Hamm (Judi Dench) up to Newfoundland, where he starts life anew, as a reporter with no credentials, for a small-town paper.  Julianne Moore, playing Wavey Prowse (the names of these characters must be leftovers from Star Wars), finally comes into the story as a love interest to Quoyle, and I swear she must have taken a bottle of valium each day before coming to work.  Moore, even in the most tragic of roles, is usually one peppy actress.  Her sparkling eyes, wonderful laugh and toothy grin do come into play more than once in The Shipping News, but there's still this overwhelming feeling of, "blah" about the performance.

The subdued acting in the film was its biggest disappointment to me.  With a cast featuring Kevin Spacey, Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench and Julianne Moore, we should be seeing fireworks; instead we don't get so much as a fizzle.  Lasse Hallstrom's strong point has always been in directing actors.  The casting director for The Shipping News picked some damn fine actors for Lasse to direct.  So, what went wrong?  Technically, I think everything went according to plan.  I think Hallstrom wanted his actors to play down their performances to match the drab scenery.  That was his first mistake; his second was sticking so damn faithfully (some would argue this) to the jumbled, but extremely well-written, story he based this film upon.

Rather than thinning out an already thin book, as Hallstrom did with his other films, he seems determined to put every single off-the-wall occurrence from The Shipping News' novel into the film (albeit he did soften it up in places).  This "must-be-faithful-to-the-book-at-all-costs" mentality is what hurt Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and nearly killed The Lord of the Rings:  The Fellowship of the RingThe Shipping News' strict adherence to the novel doesn't cause the film to suffer in quite the same way as the two sword and sorcery pics mentioned above, but it definitely doesn't benefit from it, either.  This was one experimental, entangled book -- one that would be difficult to turn into a film, even if it was sliced and diced by The Swedish Chef (that's an inside joke, if you know where Hallstrom's from) -- I never thought someone would try wholeheartedly to recreate the entire thing for the general movie going public.  Yet, try Hallstrom does, and, every so often, he succeeds.  

Some of the dialogue in The Shipping News crackles, even if it never does set off any sparks.  The Shipping News is excitingly different, which I can't say for most 2001 releases (the film received a very limited 2001 release), even if it does grow slightly tedious.  And, finally -- Lasse doesn't really deserve the credit for this one -- the cinematography by Oliver Stapleton, the man behind the grim beauty in The Cider House Rules, is a wonder to behold; it turns the bleak beautiful, and then back again.  If anyone deserves an Oscar for the The Shipping News, it would be Stapleton; his work on the film is well worth the price of admission, in and of itself.  

So, when it's all said and done, what do we have?  A film about the dark side of humanity and their struggle against the even darker side of nature, all set against a misty backdrop filled to the brim with brilliant actors taking brilliant missteps, but still dribbling out wonderful dialogue, smack-dab in the middle of some of the best cinematography in years.  

Once again, Lasse Hallstrom failed to live up to the potential that he showed with What's Eating Gilbert Grape; but he has created a town just unique enough, with characters just special enough, that you might want to drop by and pay a visit.  

What does it make you feel like eating?

Anything without seal flippers.  Ugh.  

If it won an Oscar, what would it be?

"Best Cinematography" - Oliver Stapleton

On a scale of 1-10?

7

Agree? Disagree? Email me at alex@juicycerebellum.com 

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Text (Copyright) 2002 Alex Sandell [All Rights Reserved].

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