written and directed by Rebecca Miller
opens Dec. 6 at Metro and Uptown
In Spike Jonze's soon-to-open film Adaptation, an eager would-be screenwriter takes one of those How-To classes led by a charismatic guru played to the hilt by Brian Cox. He delivers his final rule to the class in a thundering roar: "And God help you if you use voice-over!" After you've fought your way out from under Personal Velocity's smothering blanket of voice-over, you can only wish that writer-director Rebecca Miller had taken the class herself.
She's lifted three short, atmospheric portraits from her collected stories of the same name to make a triptych of character sketches: "Delia" (Kyra Sedgwick), an abused Catskill wife; "Greta" (Parker Posey), an ambitious Manhattan literary editor; and "Paula" (Fairuza Balk), a Brooklyn Boho girl in flight. The three are unconnected, except for a radio news story that plays, almost subliminally, in the background of the first two segments and is the moving force of the third story, Paula's tale.
Miller also gives us a man's voice (narrator John Ventimiglia) to describe, nonstop, these women's innermost sensations ("She felt the ambition drain out of her like pus from a lanced boil"), as though these adept actresses couldn't be trusted to show them by, well, acting. Agreed, Posey might have had a bit of trouble with the lanced boil, but nothing else seems beyond her. The book's good reviews frequently mentioned Miller's "highly visual" style; those who've written about the film since it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2002 talk about how "literary" her adaptation is.
They're pinpointing one of its problems. Granted, there's more voice-over now in films today than ever before. Nevertheless, it's an art: not just cutting, pasting, and letting a voice-over take care of the heavy lifting. It's trusting to silences and subtleties—to the audience and, most of all, to the performers. It's something that Miller, a former actress herself, fails to do.
EACH WOMAN'S STORY catches her at a pivotal moment. For Delia, it's one outburst of violence too many from her husband of a dozen or so years, caught right in close at the dinner table by cinematographer Ellen Kuras' digital-video camera. As the film's opener (after a slow-mo, dreamlike prelude of little girls on swings, freighted with intimations of Innocence Lost), this scene is a shocker, and for a while it moves—although never without running commentary.
Delia's a K-Mart goddess, grabbing the end of her youth. She's a mother of three, tough as a railroad tie, and mightily, mightily sexual. Miller's v.o. rhapsodies about her "strong heavy ass," and what it does to a pair of blue jeans, then backs it up with Mel McDaniel singing "Baby's Got Her Blue Jeans On," in case we weren't paying attention. (For the record, the lovely Sedgwick's ass is miscast in this regard.)
Actresses love to slum. Throw in abuse, and it's like red meat to a jaguar. In her low-rent role, unlike the slack and glum Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl, Sedgwick reveals Delia's essence: She's mean as a snake.
Her "power," we are told, came at 13, when she found her calling as hand-job queen of junior high. The film's notion of how Delia gets her groove back is almost as sorry. (Did Miller have to name her Delia Shunt and tell us what it rhymes with?)
WITH GRETA AND HER privileged world, Miller finally gets some traction, and Posey gets to soar. Stuck in a dead-end job at a publishing house, Greta is suddenly picked to edit the second book of a hot young author. Jet-propelled success brings her back into the good graces of her rapacious defense-lawyer father (Ron Liebman, all teeth and energy), but cuts the life expectancy of her marriage to a solid, literary good-guy to zero. ("He'll never leave me," she says by way of introduction at a party. Uh-oh.)
As Greta's father, with obligatory new young wife and baby, pulls her back in his circle of mega-influence, Posey gives us Greta's every facet unashamedly: Not only her subliminal calculation (perhaps these moneyed friends would back her in a publishing house?), but her deepest fears about her father ("How can he love me when he doesn't know me?"). Miller's insights into this milieu may—or may not—come from her lineage as the daughter of Arthur Miller and photographer Inge Morath.
Finally, there is Balk, luminous as Paula, a sweet-spirited Goth drifter, who has just missed death in a random incident and who suddenly sees signs and portents everywhere. She's as compelling as her segment is overburdened and unfocused, which is saying a great deal.