Another movie about the dishonesty and misery that lurk beneath the superficial perfection of suburbia.
This time, our principal unhappy suburbanite is Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet), who spends her mornings in the local park with the other local moms, a trio of judgmental gossips whose only happiness comes from the occasional glimpse of a handsome local stay-at-home dad. They call him "The Prom King," and when Sarah talks to him (on a bet from the three harpies), she is instantly drawn to him. His name is Brad (Patrick Wilson), and he is just as unsatisfied in his marriage as Sarah is in hers, so it's no great shock when they begin an affair.
More than anything else, the movie is about our need to watch others and gossip. The moms in the park watch Brad; Brad watches the skateboarders outside the library and longs for his own youth; Brad's wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), makes documentaries for PBS; everyone in town watches Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), recently released from prison after an indecent exposure conviction.
Field emphasizes this theme by giving the movie a narrator; Will Lyman, whose voice is instantly recognizable to anyone who's ever watched PBS for more than five minutes, is dry and detached, observing the movie's characters with so clinical a stance that they barely feel human.
The movie is so cold towards its characters, in fact, that it's hard to care at all about what happens to them. And that coldness too often crosses the line into cruelty and caricature, as with the moms in the park, or even more unkindly, with the character of Sheila, a woman who goes on a date with Ronnie. She's played by Jane Adams, and Field shoots her in a way that emphasizes her long jaw and large eyes to the point that she seems to be auditioning for the role of Olive Oyl.
There are some fine performances here. Wilson and Connelly are very good, and Winslet does superb work (despite being terribly miscast; the narrator keeps telling us that Sarah is supposed to be on the plain side, and Winslet is simply too pretty for the part). Jackie Earle Haley, who essentially disappeared after The Bad News Bears and Breaking Away, is making a comeback this year (he was also in All the King's Men), and he's marvelous here, making Ronnie sympathetic without ever letting us lose sight of the fact that he really is a creep. Ronnie's mother is played by Phyllis Somerville, and it's the movie's best performance; May wants desperately for her son to find happiness, and can't bring herself to admit how unlikely that is.
But as admirable as the performances are, Field has so distanced himself (and us) from the characters that when the final act arrives, with its over-the-top series of disasters for everyone, it doesn't have any impact. We haven't been allowed close enough to these people to care whether they live or die, whether they find happiness or continue living their lives of quiet suffering.