Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Little Children (2006)

2006's Little Children attempts to shock - shock! - its viewers by exposing something sinister lurking beneath the facade of American suburban life. It is a tale of suburban existential boredom tempered by a community's struggle with the repatriation of a recently released sex offender. The film, starring Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, and the wonderfully creepy Jackie Earle Haley, was directed by Todd Field and based upon the novel of the same name by Tom Perrotta. But, alas, we've seen it all before, multiple times.

The narrative introduces the following characters: the bored housewife who is neglectful of her parental duties (Winslet), the husband (Wilson) who is more interested in an adult website than his wife (Connelly) and immediate family, the recently released sex offender attempting to repatriate himself into the community (Haley), and the overeager "retired" police officer who left the force after shooting a young teenager who did not, as it turned out, have a weapon (Noah Emmerich). Can you guess how long it takes for the bored housewife to link up with the bored husband? Can you guess how long it takes for the retired police officer to turn vigilante on the sex offender? The supporting cast, meanwhile, is condemned to a series of stock roles, mostly those of conformist suburban wives and husbands. (One suburban stereotype of a book club member argues with Winslet's character about Madame Bovary; she calls that book's protagonist a "slut" while Winslet defends her as some type of feminist seeking escape from the prison of her existence. Well, of course, Winslet's character is more enlightened, right?).

Winslet, of course, performs well, as she always does. (Interestingly, this is only the fourth time she has played an American, the other occasions being in The Life of David Gale, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and All the King's Men). Casting her alongside Wilson, though, begs the question: how much better would the film have been if she had been opposite a more talented leading man? A.O. Scott of The New York Times described Wilson as having an "appealing blankness." As an actor, Wilson's dilemma in this role is to fashion a disillusionment from a life that many viewers might envy: beautiful wife, nice home, nice family, comfort, material possessions. Yet, his character manages to squander his existential fortune by taking his wife for granted and thrice - thrice! - failing the bar exam. What has driven him into his rut is not meaningfully explored, which is a disservice to the character, the actor, and the viewer. Is it just that the duties and obligations of a responsible parent and adult are too oppressive for such a dilettante? Is he just lazy? (He would rather watch local skateboarders do tricks or play football with his middle-aged neighbors than study for the bar exam and secure his family's future.). Does anyone even care what the answers are?

Perrotta, with a little help from Field, adapted his novel into the screenplay. Rather irksome was their decision to employ the services of a snide narrator for the film. This device breaks not just the aesthetic distance but also a cardinal rule of screenwriting: show, don't tell. Field has also somehow cast both Winslet and Connelly as wives who are under-appreciated and taken for granted. But we see far more of Winslet than we do of Connelly, both in screen time as well as, er, other respects. As an actress, Connelly is criminally underutilized.

Objectionable most of all, though, is the tired indictment of suburbia. How wearisome is this often revisited theme in Hollywood films; yet the entertainment industry sees fit to tell us, as if we didn't know, that things are not as they seem in our neighborhoods and communities. This pronouncement finds its way into so many screenplays and films that its proponents obviously derive some perverse glee in heaping their scorn and disdain onto suburban America. It's a good thing thing the screenwriters managed to escape to Los Angeles, lest they be forever condemned to the lives of the viewers who pay for the tickets to see their film.

Certainly, there is a menace in the presence of a sex offender in the community, but really, at the film's core, is the disenfranchisement of Winslet's and Wilson's characters, who presumably longed for something meaningful (or, perhaps just an excuse to justify their lackadaisical attitudes toward their responsibilities) well before the miscreant's return to their fair city.

Scott disagrees with me:

[T]he movie, which [Todd] Field and [Tom] Perrotta wrote together, does not, in the manner of other, more facile examinations of suburban dysfunction (like "American Beauty") assume that it or its audience is better than its characters.

At least he finds some fault with American Beauty (which, incidentally, was directed by Sam Mendes, now Winslet's husband in addition to being a hack). Films like Little Children and American Beauty and Far from Heaven lecture us about the perils of conformity and showcase the plight of those dissatisfied with the fruits of the pursuit of dreams we are inculcated to pursue at early ages. This statement - that conformity is undesirable and leads to alienation or isolation or loneliness - is not new or bold. It is certainly not something that would be bold or unexpected for Hollywood screenwriters to shout from their rooftops. Nevertheless, films like this receive accolades because the types of people who write, make, and review movies are generally themselves the types that flee their suburban neighborhoods to pursue their careers in big cities far from any pressure they felt to follow a certain path.

Interestingly, both Wilson and Haley have scored roles in the upcoming film adaptation of the epic comic book, Watchmen, destined to disappoint anyone familiar with the source material. Were the prospect of a Watchmen film helmed by Zack Snyder, the director of 300, not so distressing, it might be appropriate to say that Haley is an inspired choice for Rorschach.

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