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I must admit I found E. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Shipping News" to be ersatz John Irving: the way Proulx manipulates her already eccentric characters by trotting them through various situations that get even stranger as the book moves along, and especially how Proulx tries cramming warmth in among the ever more oddball events and people.

At his best - in "The World According to Garp" and his new novel, "The Fourth Hand" - Irving manages to find humanity among the weirdness. Director Lasse Hallstrom did a wonderful job of making Irving’s aggrandizing novel "The Cider House Rules" a splendidly adult drama; it doesn’t seem coincidental that Hallstrom has also helmed the film version of "The Shipping News," opening Dec. 25 at BAM Rose Cinemas.

For those unfamiliar with the story, "The Shipping News" revolves around Quoyle (Kevin Spacey), a no-account loser who loses his oversexed and unreliable wife Petal (Cate Blanchett) when she dies in a car accident with her latest beau. Left alone with his young daughter Bunny (played variously by triplets Alyssa, Kaitlyn and Lauren Gainer), Quoyle is befriended by Aunt Agnes (Judi Densch), with whom father and daughter return to the Quoyle homeland - Newfoundland.

Once there, Quoyle deals with various offbeat (but oh so lovable!) denizens of the frozen tundra, finds a job as a reporter for the local paper - hence the movie’s title - and, best of all, forges a relationship with Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore), herself left alone with young son Herry (Will McAllister).

And so it goes for two hours. If you haven’t read the novel, you may find it difficult to keep track of what’s going on; Hallstrom gamely introduces many flashbacks and fantasy sequences into a narrative that relies a great deal on a protagonist who finally outruns his often turbulent family history.

In the end, it doesn’t add up to much. Hallstrom, who has become Miramax’s dependable holiday director (in ’99 it was "Cider House"; last year, "Chocolat") paces the sharply-photographed movie well enough, and almost finds a heart beating underneath all the willful eccentricity, but he never manages to make us care about what happens to his hero.

Of course, he’s fighting Proulx’s book, which has been adapted by Robert Nelson Jacobs in a numbingly literal-minded fashion. Several flashbacks are predictable but unnecessary; at one point, we hear about a long-ago incestuous rape from someone who enters the movie just to tell Quoyle about it: and Hallstrom faithfully shows it!

Blanchett is too showy as the manipulative Petal, but Densch is wonderfully authentic as Aunt Agnes, Moore is exactly right as the hard-bitten Wavey, and the Gainer girls are seamlessly excellent as Bunny. Such solid character actors as Pete Postlethwaite, Scott Glenn and Rhys Ifans sketch their smaller roles beautifully.

In the pivotal role of Quoyle, Spacey shows off a subtlety he hasn’t displayed lately. Playing a man seemingly sick of life and accepting the role of "lumbering idiot" (his own words), Spacey does it almost entirely with his voice, sounding perpetually tired, laryngitic at times, to expressively convey this man’s world-weariness.

Since it was first shown to reviewers, "The Shipping News" has been trimmed of some five minutes by Hallstrom, who has also added narration to clarify certain narrative matters. Even so, the fundamental problems that underlie "The Shipping News" remain.


Almost perfect

So much is estimable about actor Todd Field’s directorial debut "In the Bedroom," also opening Christmas Day at the BAM Rose Cinemas, that it is almost Scrooge-like to admit to its ultimate disappointment.

The movie - adapted by Field and Robert Festinger from Andre Dubas’ short story "Killings" - recounts how Ruth Fowler (Sissy Spacek) and her husband, Matt (Tom Wilkinson) react to the unexpected death of their only son, Frank (Nick Stahl).

In its closely observed study of how a family unit can break down following such unspeakable calamity, "In the Bedroom" obviously resonates in these troubled times. But a closer examination finds that Field gropes for a way to explore emotions and relationships that seem out of his, well, field.

Many scenes make their lone point and fade to black. It’s as if Field checked off what he wanted in the movie, and simply went down the list: dad breaks down, check; stoic mom watches late-night TV and dad joins her without speaking, check; the parents finally explode in a heated blame-filled argument, check.

That "In the Bedroom" still generates occasional power is due to its tremendous acting. There’s not a false note in the performances of Wilkinson and Spacek: their faces must speak volumes since they don’t say much post-funeral, and they enact this couple’s life-altering tragedy with unbearably wrenching truth and artistry.

Stahl makes Frank a fully rounded character in his brief onscreen time, while Marisa Tomei is spectacularly good as Natalie, the divorcee whose romance with Frank contributes to his death. That Field is himself a very fine actor ("Ruby in Paradise," "Eyes Wide Shut") is unsurprising after seeing the quality of acting in his first feature.

Would that Field had sufficient directorial finesse to make the reality he sketches in "In the Bedroom" come to truly devastating life. Let’s hope he grows into the accomplished filmmaker this admirable first effort shows him capable of.


"The Shipping News" and "In the Bedroom" open Dec. 25 at the BAM Rose Cinemas [30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place, (718) 636-4100].

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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