Sunday, May 31, 2009

On DVD: "Incendiary"

Incendiary is one of those movies that begins with a portrait of parenthood that's so idealized, so bathed in gauzy filters and piano music, that you know the kid's a goner. We see the close and loving relationship of a young mother (Michelle Williams) and her son (Sidney Johnston), as they do their goodnight ritual and take a trip to a glowingly warm beach and engage in some business about his favorite stuffed animal, and if you don't think that item will be back as an improbable and clunky symbol, you haven't seen enough movies. But we're willing to go along with it, because we're savvy moviegoers and we recognize that it's part of the construct--it's like the scene where the renegade cop gets pulled from the case. We also play along because the performances are so strong; the kid is terrific, and Williams, who is finally (thankfully) getting her due as an actress, creates an affable, believable character, and her British accent isn't half bad. In addition, director Sharon Maguire creates a real sense of time and place in these opening sequences. So we go along.

And we stick with it as we find out that, lo and behold, she's stuck in a loveless marriage with a blustery boor (Nicholas Greaves). We get the required scene where she tries to welcome him home after a rough day at work, and he pulls away from her touch, and so on. We have to see how closed-off he is so that we allow her to embark on an affair, you see, because the screenplay isn't complex enough to imagine that people cheat for other reasons; one of the most refreshing things about a movie like Adrian Lyne's Unfaithful was how it gave its heroine a loving, happy marriage and had her cheat anyway. But there I go, getting distracted by thinking about a better film than this one. Anyway, a reporter (Ewan McGregor) picks her up in a pub and they hit it off; their dialogue here is creaky and more than a little forced, but their chemistry is good and their sex scene is plenty hot, so, again, we go along.

Then a bombshell--literally. While Williams and McGregor are screwing away, her husband and son are killed (along with many, many others) in a suicide bombing at a soccer match. So, at the very moment her family is killed, she was betraying them. It's a potent idea with possibilities for real drama, but the sad truth of the matter is, when the dad and the kid die, so does the movie.

Again, it's not Williams' fault. She's convincing as the shell-shocked mom (even if you catch her acting every once in a while), but the movie's second act is deathly dull, a muddled mishmash of psychological drama, mystery, and aborted romance. Incendiary begins as a contrived but nonetheless kicky, good-humored portrait of working class life. Of course the mood changes when the inciting action hits, but boy does it slow the movie down to a crawl. Poor Williams skulks around sadly for a while, and then finally asks, "Do you think it's possible to love someone and betray them at the same time?"

That's the closest the movie gets to driving at what would seem to be its primary dramatic conflict: her inner turmoil about what she did and what it says about her, as a person. Trouble is, Maguire's screenplay (from the novel by Chris Cleave) is willing to examine anything but that. It gives us a colleague of her late husband (Matthew Macfayden) who has the hots for her; Macfayden does his best with his underwritten character, but Olivier couldn't have sold a line like "I will find each piece of your heart that's been blown to smithereens and I will put it back together again." It also tries to weave some kind of a love triangle between her and Macfayden and McGregor, who has (I guess) fallen for her; it also spins, out of that, some kind of a mystery subplot with McGregor uncovering dirty secrets about Macfayden, but that stuff is so sloppily put together and poorly executed, you just kind of scratch your head and move on. Oh, and she forges some kind of weird relationship with the son of one of the suicide bombers, but the less said about that, the better.

In a script full of bad ideas, perhaps the worst are her voice-over narrations; when she's asked about the psychological advice she's received, she sneers that she's been told to write a letter about her pain to Osama bin Laden. Well, that is a ridiculous idea, so of course the movie latches on to it. "Dear Osama," she intones on the soundtrack, and all God help me, I laughed out loud (maybe I was just imagining the resulting book, "Are You There, Osama? It's Me, Margaret").

The film's closing sequence desperately wants to wring tears out of us, but it can't; we're just too passive, if not bored and confused. And the resolution is phony and obvious, featuring not just a tidy (if wince-inducing) wrap-it-all-up, love-conquers-all final voice over to Osama, but a final plot turn that you can see coming a mile off. Here's a hint: there's only two reasons why women ever throw up in the movies, and she's not a drunk.

I can't say this enough times: Don't blame Michelle Williams. She's really quite good in Incendiary, crafting an honest and naturalistic portrayal of a conflicted, distraught young mother. She does the wounded/bitter thing well, and she does some beautiful acting in a sequence late in the film where she imagines her son is still with her. But the script lets her down at every turn; she has a big emotional monologue during her second trip to the hospital, for example, where she's all the way there, and the writing just isn't. Incendiary is more proof that she can carry a movie. It's just a shame that this particular movie is such a forgettable mess.

"Incendiary" is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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