Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Life Before Her Eyes

I got to see a screening of this movie last night. I had high hopes given its pedigree--it stars Uma Thurman and Evan Rachel Wood, was directed by Vadim Perelman who also helmed House of Sand and Fog and is based on the novel of the same name by Laura Kasischke. As the film opens, the audience was treated to spectacularly gorgeous visuals of flowers and plants, morphing from one to the next in a sort of cinematic kaleidescope. Unfortunately, the rest of the film did not live up to its high class pedigree or its auspicious opening.

The Life Before Her Eyes is the story of Diana, played by both Evan Rachel Wood in her teenage days and Uma Thurman as the grown-up mature version. This was the first problem--Wood and Thurman look nothing alike. Perelman discussed the care that was taken in calibrating each actress' performance saying, "Every day I would show both of them the dailies from the others performance... They both understood each other's mannerism and speech patterns-- it looks like the most natural thing in the world but it took a lot of careful scrutiny." And certainly that scrutiny was apparent in the bangle bracelets both Dianas wear and their hairstyles, but a bit of finessing in the makeup department could have helped with the illusion. But alas no-one bothered to even lighten Wood's eyebrows--or darken Thurman's, much less get their hair color to be more similar.

As far as the performances go, Thurman's Diana character was lost and quickly losing it and so her performance had a sort of a wan and vacant overwrought quality to it. Had we been given a glimpse into the older Diana's normal state prior to the unraveling of her mind, this might have played to better effect. As for Wood, she plays the tough, smart, rebellious character that we've seen her do numerous times. She does it well, but it seems to be second nature at this point. Eva Amurri does nicely with her second banana role as Diana's best friend in high school. Although saddled with the one dimensional "virgin" to Diana's "whore," she manages to bring some depth and humor to a thankless role. Part of the fault no doubt lies in the adaptation by Emil Stern--at times there are some nice moments between Diana and Maureen, but too often their dialogue and interactions seem stiff and scripted instead of the natural gossip and banter of two best friends. Rounding out the cast is Brett Cullen (aka Goodwin from LOST), who appears as grown-up Diana's professor husband.

The second problem is the storyline. The film explores how a single moment can define an entire life and in this case, that moment is a confrontation with a student gunman during a high school shooting rampage. The movie's opening coincides closely (accidentally? deliberately?) with the one year anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings. A fact that no doubt will cause discomfort for movie-goers. Laura Kasischke's inspiration for her book partly came from the Columbine shootings:

"Everyone kept saying of those who died that 'they had their whole lives ahead of them'--all the potential that would never be realized, all the experiences that they would never have." She extrapolated that idea into her own perception of dreams vs. memories: "Sometimes I have memories that seem less real for me than a dream I had last night. And sometimes I wake up from a dream which seems as though something has really happened to me. Was that less a lived piece of my life than some vague memories I have from the past?"
Perelman does capture the dream-like aspect of the story, but his attempt to create a sort of mysterious puzzle of dream vs. reality--ala Jacob's Ladder or The Others or The Sixth Sense--falls short of its mark. The flashback and dream sequences don't flow as well as they could and feel a bit forced and contrived. And Perelman is heavy-handed with his use of symbolism and the clues that he provides the audiences as to the reality of the story. The color red is everywhere, to symbolize the blood shed of the massacre. Water in the form of swimming pools, rain, sprinklers, etc. is another symbol which echoes the oft-quoted statement in the film that humans are 72% water. Another overused device is the Zombies song She's Not There. I'm trying to avoid spoilers (if you want spoilers, feel free to e-mail me!) in this review, but Perelman himself spoils the movie by pounding the audience over the head with none too subtle hints that were the ALL CAPS equivalent of "ATTENTION!! THIS MEANS SOMETHING IMPORTANT!"

The last annoyance (other than the creepy Bad Seed portrayal of Diana's daughter Emma by Gabrielle Brennan, which I feel compelled to mention on behalf of my movie watching buddy Elizabeth...) was a seemingly anti-abortion moralization taken by the film. While the concept of "the vision of a life unlived," to quote Uma Thurman's description of her character's fear, is a compelling conceit applied to young people whose lives were cut short due to tragic circumstances. Extending the concept to the unborn was a cheap shot, in my opinion. In a film ostensibly about characters making a choice between who will live and who will die, promoting the patriarchal pro-life political stance was a jarring and unnecessary addition to the plot.

The Life Before Her Eyes opens limited release in New York and Los Angeles on April 18th and wide on April 25th.

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