December 30, 2007

MOVIES: Grace Is Gone (James C. Strouse, 2007)

John Cusack stars as Stanley Phillips, who has just learned that his wife Grace has been killed while serving in Iraq. Unable to face the task of telling their daughters that their mother is dead, he instead takes them on an impromptu roadtrip to a Disney-esque theme park.

Stanley is not the usual Cusack character; he's no smooth talker, and doesn't have Cusack's usual jittery energy. He is something of a schlump; he shuffles from place to place, constantly readjusting his glasses. Cusack seems heavier than usual, and every bit of speech is an effort for Stanley.

Unfortunately, doing less doesn't come naturally to Cusack, and I was aware at every moment of how hard he was working; I don't think I've ever seen an actor work so hard to do so little. Every shuffle and mutter and adjustment is a deliberate and painfully obvious actorly choice. "Look, Ma, I'm ACTING!," the performance screams.

The actresses playing Stanley's daughters are another matter entirely. Shelan O'Keefe and Gracie Bednarczyk, as 12-year-old Heidi and 8-year-old Dawn, are natural, spontaneous, and entirely convincing as sisters. Heidi senses that there's something their father isn't telling them, though she never figures out exactly what (perhaps because no child would ever suspect that her father would be so cruel as to lie to her about something so important), and O'Keefe captures Heidi's growing awareness that something is wrong, looking at Cusack with ever more suspicion.

The other name of note attached to this movie is that of Clint Eastwood; this is the first time he has composed the score for another director's movie. His music here is tastefully restrained to the point that it fades from memory even as you listen to it.

The movie also makes its political points in heavy-handed fashion. Alessandro Nivola has a few brief scenes as Stanley's brother, John, whose anti-war statements are so clumsy and leaden that we're clearly meant to loathe him and his politics.

Despite the fine performances by the two young actresses, the movie as a whole isn't worth your time.

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