Things fall apart… Like the former Yugoslavia. Or bombed-out buildings. Or this movie, which goes from clichéd but competent drama to ludicrous self-parody in about 60 minutes. Harrison’s Flowers chronicles the extremely implausible adventures of one Sarah Lloyd (Andie McDowell). She’s an American who drives a Hertz rental car into the middle of the early ‘90s Croatian-Serbian War. She’s there looking for her husband, Harrison (David Strathairn), a photojournalist thought to have been killed in the fighting there.
Sarah works for Newsweek, where she appears to serve as Harrison’s personal assistant. And she’s okay with taking her work home with her. Poring over maps of Yugoslavia in the ornate study of their sprawling, rural New Jersey home, Harrison tells his wife to book him a plane ticket to Graz, Austria. He’s on his way to the disintegrating Balkans for one last assignment before settling into blissful retirement, quality family time, and a chance to tend flowers in his huge greenhouse.
If there were an award given to actors for retaining their dignity in undignified movies, MacDowell would surely win for her performance in Harrison’s Flowers. She manages to carry the poorly written and potentially trite scene in which she’s told of Harrison’s supposed death. She must also make her inability to accept that death look like a heroic character trait. She orders a group of men sitting shiva out of her house while yelling, “No one’s dead!” She chain-smokes and watches news reports on Yugoslavia on two TVs simultaneously, looking for signs of Harrison. And, seeing the back of a head she takes for her husband’s, she packs her bags for war-torn Croatia.
Here’s where things get really wacky. She’s driving along in her rental, enjoying Croatia’s muddy, late-Autumn scenery when, all of a sudden: a tank rolls over her car! The question of how she managed not to hear or see the tanks, mortars, or machine guns until she was right in the middle of them is something the director is happy to let viewers answer for themselves. Unfortunately, he loses his faith in the audience’s ability to puzzle out the enigmas of Harrison’s Flowers about four-fifths of the way through. Out of nowhere, he introduces character voiceovers that are intended to advance the narrative but are so stilted and out-of-place, so sloppy, that I felt angry and insulted to have to sit through them.
What else should potential viewers of Harrison’s Flowers know? Well, Adrian Brody is in it. He plays Kyle Morris, a coke-sniffing, phenobarbital-popping photojournalist who first shows up in a bathroom angrily accusing Harrison of having sold out. He reappears in Croatia, coming to Sarah’s rescue. Always sniffing and rubbing his nose and saying things like, “My friend Leroy got bumped off,” Kyle comes of as a wanksta with bad allergies.
One thing the film has going for is its impressive, elaborate war scenes. There are always at least a half-dozen small fires, a couple burned-out cars, and some ruined buildings arranged artfully within the frame. The first few scenes are genuinely terrifying: mortars explode randomly, you can’t tell who’s who or where the shooting is coming from. Later battle scenes feel much more choreographed, while still retaining some terrible beauty.
But like everything else in the Harrison’s Flowers, these war scenes descend into complete ludicrously by the end of film. The anti-climatic arrival of Sarah and Kyle in besieged Vukovavr, where they believe Harrison to be, has the feel of a Disneyland ride through “Ethnic Cleansing Land”, an animatronic environment. They walk through the streets but don’t interact with anyone or anything. Instead, every 30 seconds they pass by a new atrocity; an old lady is shot in the head, a man is thrown into a building which is then exploded, a young woman has a sign around her neck declaring that she carries the child of a Serb.
Do they find Harrison? Is he alive? By this point in the film, I stopped caring. But here’s a hint: it’s the easiest Hollywood ending and also the most implausible outcome.
The producers of Harrison’s Flowers, originally released in 2000, are surely hoping that the film will gain some new relevance in the context of Iraq’s disintegration and the increased attention directed towards Darfur. But the only lesson this film has to offer is already familiar: even the most important, complex, and rich subject matter can, in the hands of the right people, be turned into vapid melodrama.