[18 October 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE (dir. Susanne Bier)
If you’re looking to make your own list of all the things that you, as an audience member, might loose after suffering through this horrid Halle Berry/Benicio De Toro weeper, here’s a small sampling to start you off: any sense of believable character; anything remotely resembling interpersonal reality; a lasting belief in the human spirit, especially that of a shrewish grieving widow; an acknowledgment for one’s personal stake in their own addiction; children who act like something other than sage-like sears; neighbors who are judgmental and callous about an ex-junkie’s plight; a father who cares more about a wife-beating butthead than the kids he’s carrying ice cream for; the ancient art of subtle motion picture drama; a lack of Oscar baiting performance histrionics; two hours of your precious entertainment time.
As yet another example of a gifted foreign filmmaker—in this case, After the Wedding’s Dutch director Susanne Bier—fudging up their reputation by traveling over to Tinsel Town for some Western promise, Things We Lost in the Fire is Lifetime lite cinema masquerading as actual A-list excellence. To say it wastes the talents of its Academy acknowledged cast would be tantamount to arguing that the film had some purpose other than to showcase such industry rewarded chops. When David Duchovny, whose name barely warrants a below the title credit, does the best acting job in the entire film, you know you’re in for some rough motion picture piggybacking. Add to that Bier’s unexplainable obsession with eyes (there are so many shots of these supposed windows of the soul included that you’d swear she was channeling the late Lucio Fulci) and the way too wise wee ones, and you’ve got a film that double dares you to dismiss it.
Frankly, the storyline makes such rejection all too easy. While trying to be a good Samaritan, rich financier Steven Burke (Duchovny) is murdered. He leaves behind a grieving trophy wife (Berry), two inhumanely adorable kids, the nicest neighbor in the Western Hemisphere, his shrewish spouse, and a childhood best friend (Del Toro) who’s been riding the white horse for decades. As part of his amazingly altruistic nature, the late great Mr. Burke used to metaphysically babysit his doped up buddy Jerry. Now, out of a need to find someone to blame, or a misguided desire to replace one strong patriarchal figure with a heroin addled ex-attorney, widow Audrey invites the addict to live with her. Along the way we get various confrontations over life and loss, interpersonal relapses and withdrawals, and one of those classic clichéd moments where human grief is manifested in a nonstop five minute “look at me nominating committee” banshee wail. Everything is then peachy at the end.
It’s hard to find ways to support what Bier and her novice screenwriter Allan Loeb are attempting here. When you want to do a privileged Terms of Endearment, you need a talent the size of James L. Brooks to pull it off. Melodrama, by its very nature, is one obnoxious notch above the standard genre definition, and clearly defined characters and understandable situational interactions are mandatory to make things fly. Sadly, all we get here are unnatural responses, unrealistic tangents, and no real means of identifying with what’s going on. Because Bier believes in such an abstract approach to her narrative—we get too many extreme close-ups, too many sequences of pointless, purposeless silence—the movie feels inert. Even worse, we never get a handle on how to feel about these people. One minute they’re endearing and energetic, the next they’re as confusing as software instructions.
Part of the problem is Berry. She’s supposed to be the stoic spouse, unable to grieve for the sake of her children and channeling her pain through inappropriate instances of irrational rage. Yet such a dynamic is never consistently maintained. Sometimes, she’s pissy just for the sake of being so. Other times, she comes across like a puppy whose just been swatted on the nose for making a mess in the corner. Her conversations with Del Toro fluctuate wildly from superficial pleasantries to woefully improper inferences. There are two scenes in particular that destroy every ounce of Audrey’s credibility. During a fit of post-funeral insomnia, Berry invites Del Toro to her bedroom. She then has him recreate the supposedly safe and secure sleeping position she shared with her husband, complete with errant leg angles, and slow, sensual ear tugging. It’s like watching an emotional snuff film. Even worse is the moment when, out of desperation, Audrey begs to learn the life of a junkie. She says it’s a question of escape. We recognize it as nothing more than self-conscious cinematic grandstanding.
Benicio isn’t much better. Screwing up his mouth like he just got caught stealing a cookie, and moving back and forth between accents, he’s a neutered Dr. Gonzo, the one time God’s own prototype reduced to a jaundiced ‘Just Say No’ PSA. While his personality is slightly endearing (when asked about his problem, he traces its roots in a matter of fact fashion) and he seems to be connected to those around him, his Jerry is even more insular than Audrey. He’s a guy so closed off that even his addiction seems petty, like an irrational nail-biting habit that he has yet to lick. Even strung out he’s strong, generating the kind of magnetism we expect from the Traffic talent. There’s no vulnerability at all. It’s almost as if Berry demanded all helplessness as part of her contract. Del Toro simply got the sequences of drug sweat stink.
As for the rest of the cast—who cares? No one stands out, and Bier fails to properly utilize her supporting players at every turn. It’s one of the main issues in this movie. Audrey has a helpful mother, a more than sympathetic brother, a clear connection to her dead husband’s family, and no money worries whatsoever. The need to blame/save/scapegoat Jerry is so mechanical, so much about the movies and not real life, that it sends us looking to the fringes for answers. Sadly, there are no explanations to be found there. Indeed, there is almost no context in Things We Lost in the Fire. Even the title is deceiving since it tends to broaden the scope of an event that we learn was almost minor in its overall significance. While Loeb is to blame for writing such surface situations (the “I can’t go in there” office moment is so hoary, ancient Greek playwrights dismissed it as derivative), Bier could have made this work.
Here’s how—junk the timeline leaping narrative structure with its foolish level of flashbacks. Give us the Berry/Duchovny marriage for a full 40 minutes, boring everyday agendas and formula family stuff intact. Have occasional jaunts out to Del Toro’s junkie headquarters and late night arguments between the couple over same. Keep the father character’s death offscreen until a last act denouement when Berry confronts Del Toro over her husband’s loyalty. Let her vent all the wildly out of place emotions and tirades she delivers during the first part of the film in this intense standoff. Have the brother and mother more clearly defined, struggling to see why their grieving relative would focus on a discarded dope fiend. Make the film less about Berry’s journey toward acceptance and more about how two people cope with losing their only lifeline. Of yeah, and keep the kids as kids. A nine year old should never be more cultured and considered than those around her.
And there you have it—everything that Things We Lost in the Fire is not. Instead of a tired, teeth gnashing exercise in emotional extremes, you’d have a considered, complex movie that might actually make a point about divergent personalities learning to manage their pain. While this uninspired effort might please a demographic geared to take everything these particular actors do and say as examples of cinematic Gospel, the rest will remain unconverted. Too bad this script didn’t get lost in the aforementioned blaze. Starting over from scratch may have been the only chance to salvage this hankie hackwork.