A terrible idea. Don’t you just love those?
— Katherine (Lindsay Duncan), Under the Tuscan Sun (2003)
Your themes are all the same. Your narration lacks depth and imagination. Your prose struggles for wit. Overall, your style is sluggish, at best, and contains absolutely nothing that your average Joe with a typewriter couldn’t produce.
— Jeremy (Joshua Jackson), Shadows in the Sun
The DVD box raves, “In the tradition of Under the Tuscan Sun!” And indeed, Shadows in the Sun is also set in Italy. The similarities end there, if you don’t count the fact that a rock tossed at either film is guaranteed to hit something annoying.
Take Joshua Jackson’s earnestness. He plays Jeremy Taylor, a brash young editor sent to Tuscany to contract former big-time writer turned 20-year recluse Weldon Parish (Harvey Keitel) to write a new novel. A struggling writer looking to kick-start his own creative engine, Jeremy is poised to learn lessons: the seemingly senile old fart writer will teach young grasshopper to take writerly flight, thus rediscovering his own passion for storytelling. While Keitel shoots for some Madness of King George buffoonery, Jackson plays straight-up enamored, both of his writing idol and that idol’s pretty daughter, Isabella (Claire Forlani).
It’s obvious where these characters will end up. What’s most embarrassing is writer/director Brad Mirman’s belief that he’s creating a genuinely grand bit of art. In the 30-minute making-of featurette, he sums up Jeremy’s education: “There’s no other reason to do anything artistic in life than the love of the process, the love of the art itself.” Absolutely. But it helps to understand that art first. The problem arises when we witness Parish’s greatness for the first time. He and Jeremy stand before a gorgeous Italian sunset, Parish asks Jeremy to describe it. “The sun dropped…” is all Jeremy manages before Parish is scolding the lad for his amateurishness. So, Jeremy asks, how, Great Writer, would you do it?
The sun set slowly, igniting the sky in fiery shades of red and orange. In the distance, dark clouds rolled over the horizon, riding the summer winds. Soon, day would give way to night, and with it would come the silence that washed over everything.
“Fiery shades of red and orange”? I’d bet that if you go back in time to the first book ever written, the sunset is described in exactly the same way. This “amazing” writer is awfully fond of clichés. He’s fond of those clichés, in fact, as later Parish praises Jeremy’s description of the wind as “dancing gently” through Isabella’s “long strands of hair.” Philosophies on writing and life experience produce similar gems: “Think of words as colors and paper as canvas”; “If you’re writing a fight scene, it helps if you’ve been in a fight”; and “You have to find that part of you that has something to say”. Or my favorite: “The years teach much which the days never knew”. So, basically, the greatest writer ever not only gets his grammar wrong, but also has only “time flies” to teach his protégé. The kid could have learned that from Jackie Susann.
The film tries to illustrate Parish’s greatness and winds up generating cringing laughter. Although presented as a genius, his forays into creativity here are beyond banal. It’s impossible to believe in him, no matter how much Jeremy (and the film) wants us to.
It’s difficult, too, to believe Parish is a “blocked” writer. When he inevitably starts writing again, one wonders how long it will take before he’s blocked again, as there’s no evidence of a process of expunging the demons. In the beginning, it’s revealed that his wife died the same day he stopped writing. She is referred to only briefly throughout the rest of the film, and we’re left to believe that Parish’s crazy outings with Jeremy are responsible for his rush of ideas. (What those ideas are is anybody’s guess.) Only problem is, Parish spends much of the film berating Jeremy: just when does the transformation occur?
The DVD extras don’t shed light on what we’re supposed to make of all this. We learn how complex the sheep-crossing-the-road scene was, and that “filming in the tight confines of a moving train is not an easy thing to do”. Mirman talks long about beautiful Italy. Everybody’s “a joy to work with”, and the one-liners from actors and crew-folk are as confusing as the film itself. Armando Pucci, who plays a cheeky hotelier in the film, claims that working with Mirman is like working “with Scorsese” (Pucci, not surprisingly, has never actually worked with Scorsese). Reducing whatever credibility they might have had, Jackson and Forlani call the script and Mirman “wonderful.” She goes so far as to call Shadows in the Sun her Il Postino. Oy.
The only eye-opening moment in this entire set is Jackson’s recollection of working with Keitel:
He comes from a very mannered style of acting. He’s deeply, deeply Method, which makes the experience slightly more cut off… because of the particularities of the Method and, particularly the Adler technique of acting. It’s very much about his process, and his way of going through things, and not so much an interplay between the two actors, which can be difficult at times.
If Jackson was in any way intimidated in his scenes with Keitel, he doesn’t show it. At least no more than he is supposed to, playing a character in awe of the Great Parish. Jackson, in fact, appears more comfortable in this film than Harvey, whose line deliveries are distractingly stilted. Of course, when he gets his shout on, Keitel acts poor Pacey off the screen. Still, Jackson holds his own. Someone get him a Wonder Boys — quick.