Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Love: Sweet and Sour

By Hadley Hury

APRIL 26, 1999:  Tony Goldwyn has earned respectable credits as an actor both on the New York stage and on the screen. He is off to an equally respectable start as a film director with A Walk on the Moon, a deceptively simple rumination on that moment in time -- the summer of 1969 -- when the gears of the American zeitgeist shifted so dramatically that today, three decades later, neoconservatives continue to cite it as the defining transformation by which they apotheosized into Us and everyone else became Them. But Goldwyn's film, scripted by Pamela Gray and produced by Dustin Hoffman, is not an exposition of the socio-politics of the late '60s or of the subsequent cultural wars. Nor does it concern itself directly with the cataclysmic ingredients of the period -- Vietnam, hippies, Woodstock, drugs, the sexual revolution, and that proud but disorienting moment when American astronauts altered the face of poetry by footprinting the moon; though they are crucial in informing the film's context and are even glimpsed obliquely, these iconographic elements of the era remain, for the most part, offstage.

A Walk on the Moon is the story of a middle-class family who registers the cultural rifts of the times as many families did -- subtly, almost imperceptibly, maladroitly, and above all, inarticulately. Far from marching against the war or burning bras, dropping acid, or reading Carlos Casteneda -- these characters pass the "Summer of Love" coming to grips with the difficult necessities of familial intimacy. They breathe the change in the air and they must respond to internal seismic shifts as the large social abstractions seep into their lives, but, on the whole, A Walk on the Moon is not about people on the cutting edge of revolutions but those, like the vast majority of average folk, who either sink or learn a new way to swim when they are caught in a riptide of change. Gray's sweet script and Goldwyn's memorable directorial debut give A Walk on the Moon a lovingly focused, bittersweet quality that is almost Chekhovian in its sympathy for human beings who must struggle to communicate when they find themselves confronting a new frontier, their familiar social idioms and vocabulary suddenly in question.

Not surprisingly, Goldwyn proves to be "an actor's director." The emotional arc of every scene is unhurried though never lax, and, refreshingly, he entrusts his audience with an appreciation for subtlety, surprise, recognition, revelation. Diane Lane is Pearl, a wife and mother to a teenage daughter and 8-year-old son. She is passing the summer of '69 as she has for 15 years -- at a Jewish bungalow resort in the Catskills. (Goldwyn distills the mise en scene of this tradition with gentle accuracy and poignancy.) Every weekend her husband Marty (Liev Schreiber) comes up to join his family, and every Monday he makes the two-hour drive back to New York, where he is a television repairman. While her daughter discovers first love and her son splashes in the lake, Pearl does what she has always done -- she goes berrying and cooks meals with her mother-in-law (Tovah Feldshuh) and plays mah-jongg and experiments with new hairstyles with her thirtysomething girlfriends. The only difference is that this summer Pearl senses that she is drowning in unrealized dreams, or that life has somehow changed, or that it is going on somewhere else, or that it has left her behind. Married and a mother at 18, she has never known herself beyond the reality of her husband and children, and, though she loves them dearly, she is wondering what pieces of her life may have gone missing. A free-spirited, traveling blouse peddler (Viggo Mortensen) lends focus to her vague discontent.

Lane is well-cast as Pearl. It is no easy matter to portray, for nearly two hours, a character who is fundamentally confounded, who becomes virtually immobilized by her confusion of purposes and cannot articulate it, to others or to herself. Lane has always been an actor capable of vulnerability and a wry tentativeness, and she relies on these qualities to evince Pearl's inexpressible dilemma as moving rather than maddening; she makes her unvoiced questionings and undirected longings completely ingenuous. The other excellent performances provide invaluable help in keeping Pearl's credible but dramatically challenging quandary from stultifying the film. Anna Paquin is, once again, enchanting as the 14-year-old daughter (who hugs her mother and says, with perfect teenage logic, in a tearful reconciliation scene, "I still hate you but that doesn't matter"). Feldshuh, as Marty's shrewd and energetic mother, gives her warmest and most engaging screen performance to date. And Schreiber's Marty is incisively etched and endearing.

Unlike today's reactionary social critics, Goldwyn has no axe to grind with the '60s. His focus on that fateful summer of '69 is tightly, clearly, and affectionately drawn. The story of Pearl and Marty is a simple but resonantly affecting story of innocent bystanders drawn into the margins of great events. A Walk on the Moon's very power is in its restraint from polemics; we are left with a couple who, after the upheavals of their own particular version of the Summer of Love, are awkwardly poised but filled with the quiet excitement of carrying forward a new shared sense of discovery. They may not be anyone's cultural heroes, but it's nonetheless pretty wonderful when, in the end, the only side they find they can take in the revolution is each other's.

Goodbye Lover is the sort of film likely to inspire either admiration or censure. Its comedy is so wickedly dark and its wickedness so brazenly silly that some moviegoers may feel the joke's on them. It's best simply to get over this; once I did so, about halfway through this stylish send-up of noir films and California self-help values, I enjoyed myself immensely. Director Roland Joffe may be slumming from his usual high-minded projects (The Mission, The Killing Fields, City of Hope), but he can take me along anytime.

As eccentric as the loose-noodle noir story (by Ron Peer, Joel Cohen, and Alec Soklow) is the casting. You know you're in sketchy moral and psychological territory as soon as the movie opens with a sex scene in a New Age church's organ-loft between Patricia Arquette as a perky real estate vixen and Don Johnson as a public-relations czar. Then there's Dermot Mulroney as Johnson's sleaze-bag kid brother and Mary-Louise Parker as a sweet young publicist. By the time Ellen DeGeneres shows up as an acerbic police detective with a rustic Mormon rookie in tow (Ray MacKinnon), the only surprise left is how perfect they all are for the bizarre nonsense at hand. As the tale of murder, lust, and money plays out with gotcha! twists and unexpected turns, Joffe and the unexpectedly interesting cast don't drop a stitch; the real suspense and the smart-ass satire remain seamless even after we're let in on the first joke.

Essentially a puzzle, Goodbye Lover is exhilarating in its very lowness. It stoops audaciously in spoofing just about every convention of the noir genre as well as the amoral viciousness with which some people seek to beat the millennial clock by pursuing very corrupted versions of the American Dream. If you take this sassy, smarmy, delightfully depraved film at face value, you will go home and shut the door and never come out again, waiting for Armageddon, knowing that our society is beyond help. If, however, you keep in mind that where there's satire there's hope, you may enjoy the pleasure of letting go and letting Goodbye Lover take you for a very chilly, but very bracing, joy ride.


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