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Oscar Wilde once wrote that only a reader with a heart of stone could refrain from laughing at the death of Dickens’s Little Nell.

At a critics’ screening of Evening, the critics showed themselves not to have hearts of stone. They laughed in unison when Glenn Close burst into wrenching weeping over the death of a relative.

And this was the second crying jag in as many weeks to elicit laughter. Just seven days earlier I laughed out loud at the caterwauling of A Mighty Heart’s Angelina Jolie over the death of her character’s husband, a shrill high pitched aria not unlike a fire drill or a bomb siren. The film should be called A Mighty Wind, for that and other reasons.

Posters

Easily vying for the title of worst films of the year so far, these two releases are illustrative of certain corners that writers write themselves into. A Mighty Heart is a root a kidnapping tale. In other words, the bulk of the film is dedicated to people standing around waiting for the phone to ring with ransom instructions, all saying the same thing that they have said in innumerable previous kidnapping films. Evening is a death bed movie, perhaps even more boring of a genre. Even worse, it is a dying-person-remembers-the-past movie, so the narrative alternates between the depressing present and the cause of that depression, the past. This sort of thing has only be done well once, by Alain Resnais, in Providence, one of the greatest films ever made, part of the reason for its greatness is that the “memories” are all “false” (in fact, the dying guy is writing a novel in his head).

Mighty Heart chart

A Mighty Heart is, of course, the tale of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and his kidnapping in Karachi after being set up for an interview that turns out to be faked (one of the many holes in the film is that it fails to explain just why Pearl was so hot to do this interview, his “last,” dramatically conveniently enough, before leaving). The movie versions of the Pearls are horrible; Pearl is a preening elite who has made his love for his wife something of a life’s work; and Ms Pearl is a bossy, unpleasant person. Director Michael Winterbottom, who is something of a British Oliver Stone, is prone to covering hot spots, but here, as usual, and like Stone, his set ups are transparent. For example, an FBI agent is set up as a bureaucratic baddie. Just as Ms. Pearl says to the increasing number of officials crowding into her house that she hopes they can all share information, the FBI agent gets a call on her cellular and, saying that she has to take the call, demands that the room be cleared. Really? She couldn’t just step outside? Well, no, because that would violate Winterbottom’s bias. Later, a TV reporter (and all TV reporters are shallow, while only print journalists have dignity of profession) asks (rightly in my mind, since people are curious about such things), if Ms. Pearl has seen the tape of her husband’s execution. She gets all huffy and irate, demanding to know how he could ask such a question. I don’t know, but I am sure the incident is made up. In any case, Ms. Pearl said on Fresh Air this week that she indeed had seen the tape, and gave a good reason for doing so. But it serves Winterbottom’s ends to show her indignant.

Mighty Heart raid

Winterbottom also strives for a Soberbergh style effect from such films as Traffic. The camera roves realistically through crowded streets, and there are jump cuts. The film’s whole affect is one of listening in on events. But what the viewer needs is clarity and guidance, especially with such a complicated tale.

Vanessa Redgrave

Evening is a chick flick but from a source that I had also assumed was high art. It is based on a novel by Susan Minot, another east coast elite who has published five or six books. Not having read any of them, I assumed that she was a respected literary novelist. The translation of the book to the film suggests that, perhaps stripped of the prose, she is not that far in effect from Jennifer Weiner. While Vanessa Redgrave is dying from some undisclosed disease, her two daughters (Toni Collette, Natasha Richardson), giving watch, are bickering with each other. Wholly unrelated in every way, a parallel story occurs, the tale of some important transition in Redgrave’s life, the wedding day of her then best friend (Mamie Gummer), as offered up in flashbacks presumably running through the dying woman’s mind. In this tale, which takes place in some spotless, unlived-in past among social elites, the young Redgrave, played by Claire Danes. While there for the wedding, Danes quasi falls in love with the male hunk everyone is in love with (a doctor, played by Patrick Wilson), and out of love with the bride’s sexually confused brother (Hugh Dancy). When Dancy drunkenly kisses Wilson’s character, I said, perhaps too loud, Yes, of course, naturally (the film is co-produced by Minot and fellow novelist Michael Cunningham; the trailer is very misleading when it says that the film is “from the author of The Hours, though the statement is technically true).

Evening Danes

The film is directed lifelessly by Lajos Koltai, a cinematographer of long standing and some repute. But from the first 12 seconds, with its tinkling seesaw piano score and tiny white whispering credits against a black background (this is serious art, you see), I was bored. The “philosophy” of the film is also ultimately rather passimisitc, and probably not what chick flick fans want. Streep’s character more or less says at the end that life is shit and then you die (the trailer only quotes her as saying, “We are mysterious creatures, aren’t we,” sure to entice chick flick viewers with flattery) If the flashback track of the film is slightly less boring, it is because something at least almost happens (some drunken speeches, a fatal car accident), even if it is among people we care little about. But, like A Mighty Heart, at least Evening is good for one mighty belly laugh.

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