Wrecked lives: A yuppie teen-ager uses video to sort out his problems

October 22, 1990|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

If nothing else, "Extreme Close-Up" is surely one of the most daring made-for-TV movies of the year.

By the standards of prime-time entertainment, it is daring in subject matter. This story of a 15-year-old boy's obsession with his mother's death in an automobile accident deals with attempted suicide, mental illness, Oedipal feelings and a bone-chilling emptiness under the facade of an attractive yuppie family.

The film -- which airs at 9 tonight on WMAR-TV (Channel 2) -- is written by Marshall Herskovitz, from a story he created with Ed Zwick. The two are the creators of "thirtysomething"; one of its stars, Peter Horton, directed the movie.

"Extreme Close-Up" is also somewhat daring in style and technique. The teen-ager's obsession takes the form of playing and replaying home videos he made of his family before his mother's death.

Throughout the film, we watch the teen-ager, David Toll (played by Morgan Weisser), watching videos of his mother, Margaret (played by Blair Brown). We also are continually jumping back and forth between video images of David and his family in the past and David's present world following the death of his mother.

The film is essentially set in David's room in front of his video monitor -- as his home videos spin out a tale of mental disintegration for his mother and helplessness and hurt for his father (played by Craig T. Nelson). There is alienation all around David and his younger brother and sister.

The filmmakers' cameras do follow David to school where he enters into a relationship with a classmate, Laura Fields (Samantha Mathis), who looks a little like his dead mother. The juxtaposition of the dead mother's video images with Laura and the confusion in David's mind about his feelings for the dead mother and living girlfriend are the stuff of Freud in the Video Age.

Herskovitz and Zwick get a little too self-consciously metaphysical about how video images are not in one sense reality, though for some of us they are the most real things in our lives. The filmmakers seem to think they invented the idea that as a culture we are in grave danger of confusing video images with real life -- believing, for example, that the man or woman who looks best in a TV commercial would actually be the best elected official.

The characters' speeches about video reality vs. reality-reality are the worst thing about this film.

But those speeches are only part of the mix. The rest of "Extreme Close-Up" is pretty impressive stuff -- fine acting from Nelson and Brown and a sensitive look at life in one neighborhood of Yupscale America.

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