Our Day Will Come

Dancing at Lughnasa
Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

Down in the Delta
area theaters, starts Friday

Birds of a feather: Alfre Woodard and Loretta Devine in Maya Angelou's Down in the Delta
Birds of a feather: Alfre Woodard and Loretta Devine in Maya Angelou's Down in the Delta

Stepmom
area theaters, starts Friday

Shakespeare in Love
area theaters, starts Friday

The current Hollywood version of so-called women's pictures reminds me of the girl-group phenomenon of the early '60s. The main character, or voice, is always a woman, although duets with the right, complementary man have their place. Content focuses on relationships, whether romantic, maternal, or sisters-are-doing-it-for-themselves; the PMS tone swings from ecstatic to devastated and back, with little ground in between. Women don't usually write the words these females mouth, nor do they control where or how they are uttered (if they're uttered at all). When women do write, direct, or produce, they're generally careful to color within the lines--Nora Ephron plays Carole Goffin-King in Hollywood's new Brill Building. Likewise, an actress can wring drama and beauty from these constricted stories, but she remains a caged bird, singing.

In this light, Pat O'Connor's Dancing at Lughnasa could appear, with a good bit of squinting, as an anti-women's-picture women's picture. The five aging Mundy sisters, led by Meryl Streep's precisely accented Kate, scratch out a living in rural Donegal, 1936. The only solace in their flat life comes from the sprightly airs on the radio; when their uncle, a benignly senile missionary, returns from Africa, conscientious Catholic Kate bans popular music from the house. Priests, she avers, don't dance. Father Jack (Michael Gambon) does, though--or did, when in Africa--and Kate spends most of the rest of the film trying to stomp out his "pagan" sensuality, and her sisters', too. None of these canaries will warble, if she can help it.

Dancing at Lughnasa began as a stage play written by Brian Friel, and it has retained a cramped and literary style. When, despite Kate's best efforts, fun is had in Donegal, we don't feel the characters' delight; we're told of it. The movie's least effective scene was obviously meant to be its most expansive and cathartic: A bit of song gradually invites all the sisters into a whirling, crack-the-whip jig symbolizing some kind of nondoctrinal spiritual union--except that the players (including the director) are so grimly determined to be transported that no one comes close. Dancing at Lughnasa defaults on the women's picture promise: to make ordinary women's constrained lives look heroic, tragic, or at least important. More due to incompetence than intent, O'Connor portrays these marginal, insignificant Irish women as, well, marginal and insignificant. It's as if bad production had dragged the tempo and smeared the spirit of "One Fine Day" until the Chiffons sounded like they were singing scared in the dark: This might be true, but it isn't especially compelling.

Poet and memoirist Maya Angelou, she of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, may be no more capable a director, but her debut feature certainly doesn't lack for import. Written by Myron Goble as a sort of Diana Ross, been-to-hell-and-back vehicle, Down in the Delta kidnaps that media star--the alcoholic, unemployable welfare mother--and whips her into shape with some old-fashioned notions of family loyalty and responsibility. Loretta (Alfre Woodard) has been stoned, it seems, since she bore an autistic child and the father ran off. Her saintly mother Rosa Lynn (Mary Alice) cares for ungovernable Tracy (Kulani Hassen) and a frustrated older son, Thomas (Mpho Koaho), in a tiny Chicago projects apartment, while Loretta dozes. Fearing for the children and fed up with Loretta, Rosa Lynn sends the whole lot down to her brother-in-law Earl (Al Freeman Jr.) in rural Mississippi for the summer.

To buy bus tickets, Rosa Lynn pawns her one family heirloom, a silver candelabra cryptically named Nathan. The unfolding of the Nathan story turns out to be Down in the Delta's one shy and startling pleasure. A more mundane mystery is how so many talented artists (Wesley Snipes also stars and co-produces) could fashion such a stock story. Angelou's elementary direction doesn't help: Like some Hallmark TV movie, each scene is played at maximum intensity, so there's little sense of an overall emotional arc. And the acting cries out for a tighter rein: Mary Alice simply yells her self-righteous Laurel Avenue matriarch at a higher pitch; while Woodard's twitching impersonation of a bad actress impersonating a drunk was so convincing I didn't recognize her until Loretta dried out.

As a women's picture that is also an African-American picture, Down in the Delta cheers its protagonist on in her journey up from the contemporary slavery of addiction to self-confidence and a fatter bank account. Unsurprisingly given this genre's conservatism, the movie's vision of good living is a South where black folks can afford black domestic help. Despite, or because of, the hard nut of deprivation at its heart, Angelou's film touts the kind of (increasingly quixotic) all-American values Clarence Thomas would wave a flag over: bootstrap economic uplift; small business ownership; focus on the family (never mind all those lost Northern souls without a prosperous uncle in Mississippi). Ain't it the truth: God blesses the child who's got her own.

 

Of course, the rich have their own problems, which, if Stepmom is any indication, chiefly involve a lack of imagination. As executive producers who participated in script rewrites, Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts have helped bring to life a Frankenstein of a women's picture, stitched together with scenes from 20 years of mainstream movie highlights. Indeed, every moment is so familiar that the movie could be a greatest hits medley--like one of those three-minute Motown artist wrap-ups stretched to two hours. Let's see: We've got white-folks-joyously-lip-synching-to-Marvin Gaye (The Big Chill); lost-child-found-at-police-station (One Fine Day); parents-at-kids'-soccer-match (first instance obscured by general overuse); and children-in-divorce-crossfire (Kramer vs. Kramer, Mrs. Doubtfire, etc.). And that merely covers the minor hits--the monster's appendages.

The Turning Point provides the head: two women--one with children, one with a career--trading barbs because, naturally, each is jealous of the other. Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft were former and fading ballerinas, respectively; Sarandon and Roberts are first and second wives. Their insults sound processed and petty this time around--maybe because most women have negotiated a truce with the career-family conflict. The dramatic question here is: When will fashion photographer Isabel (Roberts) junk her job to become a stay-at-home stepmother? (I hear it's the new yuppie accessory.) The answer has much to do with Stepmom's heart, borrowed from Terms of Endearment: Somebody is Dying, in other words, and it takes a Long Time. Don't bring a few tissues, grab the box.

As Jackie, the perfect mom, Sarandon has never been so overbearing. I never understood the criticism of her as a smug, affected actress until now. She has chosen one too many priggish roles, and her face seems to have sunk into the habit. Even after Jackie and Isabel quit their spat, she remains a condescending, suffocating, eye-popping horror--which makes me wonder if the "tragedy" of Stepmom is actually more of a revenge. Isabel represents the friendly, big-sister mother, one who's quick to admit her faults and then excuse them with a hurt "I'm trying!" Judging from a male purr in the row behind me, Roberts's cool version appears ascendant: This year's model mom is at most 15 years older than the oldest child, with legs up to here.

For, beneath its concern with maternal ideals, Stepmom is consumed with consumption. In its wide-eyed love of all things upper-middle class--trophy wives, comfortably cavernous Victorian houses, granite-countered penthouse kitchens, late-model Land Rovers, and idyllic horseback rides--Chris Columbus's movie plays junior partner to Meet Joe Black. Its careful details remind me that women's pictures, like sequined girl-group glamour, have often enticed audiences with the dream of wealth. The viewer walks the path of the characters' emotional crises into a beautiful, shiny world; she lives within it for two (long) hours. There's a cost to this particular fantasy, though: In Isabel's world of money, a mother's choice to work is less a matter of necessity than of selfish whim. So when the viewer returns on her path, she's burdened with a guilt unlooked for and unearned.

If Stepmom grovels to an epic "Mama Said," John Madden's Shakespeare in Love spins giddy circles around "Leader of the Pack." A businessman's daughter worships poetry and theater, and aches to drown in the romance they celebrate. She disguises herself as an actor and auditions for a play, winning not only the part but the eager attention of the playwright, an impassioned, rebellious idealist from the wrong side of the tracks. Her parents would kill him if they knew. They've set her up with an older fellow from a good family. What can she do? Their love is doomed!

A threadbare scheme--except, in the beguiling version by writers Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, the year is 1593; the playwright, Will Shakespeare; the play struggling to be written, Romeo and Juliet. And the part assigned to the fair maiden? Romeo. Women of the day were not players, so Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) disguises herself as a man to stalk the stage. Do not fear that any opportunity for titillating mustache-meeting will pass unplundered: Viola takes her first taste of Will (Joseph Fiennes) as a man, and shakes the playwright silly. In one thrilling sequence, Will woos Viola with words that she speaks in turn as Romeo: Each is at once the lover and the loved. Fiennes makes a brash and sexy romantic idiot; and if shallow Paltrow were at all believable as a man, let alone an actor, their entanglement would pass beyond mere gender play and begin to represent something as rich and strange as the disappearance of difference in sexual union.

As it is, though, we must be content with a wild and witty movie, reeling with Shakespeare's drunken language of love and goosed with playwright Stoppard's clever banter. Smart contributions from the rest of the cast, including Geoffrey Rush, Imelda Staunton, and Colin Firth, grant every scene a fluid immediacy. Dame Judi Dench, as an impeccably sharp Queen Elizabeth, provides wry, needling commentary on the interwoven tales of all-encompassing love. Because, in the end, Will must set his muse free, to create her life; and Viola must let her playwright go, so she can write her own lines. The last scene offers its heroine--and its audience--perhaps the greatest gift any women's picture (or song) made by men can muster: a mysterious horizon and a blank expanse of beach, where we might make our mark.

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