Sarandon's maternal fury fuels relentless, moving 'Lorenzo's Oil'

January 22, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

A proverb from the ancient sewer of male fear insists that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. "Lorenzo's Oil" is a virtual blueprint of that proposition, except that the woman in question has been scorned not by a man but by a gene.

It's the heroic story of two parents -- but especially the mother -- who watch in horror as their very special son is shriveled by a genetic disorder for which there appears to be no cure; they in turn are scorned by a medical profession that offers only platitudes about fate and the squishy tread of business as usual. Enter, stage left: the fury.

Susan Sarandon plays Michaela Odone, the Chevy Chase mother who with her husband, Augusto (Nick Nolte), literally invaded the temple of medical culture and, through the sheer force of will and her and her husband's own native brilliance (unstated by the film, but the obvious component), forced the theory and development of an oil that retarded the advance of adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), which attacks the fat sheathing delicate nerve cells in the brain.

The movie's best decision is its commitment to relentlessness, perhaps not surprising given that George Miller is the director of possibly the most relentless movie ever made, "The Road Warrior." It's almost "The Gene Warrior," so plunging and fierce is it as it roars through the thickets of medical arcana in pursuit of the elusive elixir of mercy. By original training, Miller is a doctor himself, and so, like the Odones, he was unintimidated by the priestly aura of the medical profession. He already knew what adrenoleukodystrophy was!

Miller is unafraid to show us the disease at its ravaging worst or Michaela Odone at her ravaging worst. It's this clear commitment to authenticity that makes "Lorenzo's Oil" as riveting as it is occasionally desperately unpleasant to watch. As the boy shivers and gags in utter pain, you think: Why don't they let him die? Whose life is it, anyway? And in full rage against the dying of her son's light, Sarandon is indeed a formidable force. Miller and Sarandon, between them, refuse to sentimentalize either the disease or the woman, and at times they seem almost evenly matched in gale force and cruel irrationality, particularly when Michaela turns in sickening anger on her own sister, who's been as gallant an ally as conceivable.

Though never made explicit, the source of this fury is transparently obvious. The disorder of ALD is carried by the mother and deposited by the utter whimsy of the genetic roulette of procreation in the DNA of one in every million or so children. It is of course no one's fault; it is a jest of nature. Thus what drives Michaela has to be a measure of secret guilt, irrational as that may be. It's certainly something that Sarandon communicates in the texture of her performance, as her darker fury boils up from so deep within.

I am aware that the movie is ensnared in controversy, even as it arrives, particularly with medical institutions in this area. The conflict between doctors and patients over radical treatments is an inevitable flash point, as the political squabbles surrounding AIDS has certainly exposed. And certainly there is something to be said for the conventional medical viewpoint, which demands slow, careful testing over a period of time, using scrupulous statistical tracking and so forth; but this movie doesn't say it. It views the medical establishment as most radical movies view any establishment: as a self-perpetuating clan of fuddy-duddies more interested in clinging to the teat of federal grants than actually getting anything done. That may be unfair, but so be it: that's clearly what the Odones felt.

The other astonishment of "Lorenzo's Oil" is that you probably need at least a year of high school chemistry to stick with it through the hairpin curves of some of its scientific dilemmas. This is mind-blowing in an era when big studio movies are geared toward the socially maladjusted second-grade mind; its intelligence is a little moving.

But it also gives the movie an edge of arrogance that can be unpalatable. For example, the movie is quite unpleasant in its treatment of the ALD parents group, a bonding of suffering moms and dads completely daunted by the progress of the disease and completely committed to aiding the doctors who fight it. But to the Odones and Miller, these good-natured fellow sufferers are boobs in livery to the medical priesthood, and the movie dispenses with them so cruelly it left me a bit unsettled.

Sarandon, as I said, is brilliant, almost scary. Nick Nolte struggles gamely with Augusto's Italian accent and isn't quite made foolish by it, though it's a close contest. Peter Ustinov is surprisingly benign as a leading ALD expert, and Zack O'Malley Greenburg is heartbreaking as Lorenzo.

"Lorenzo's Oil."

Starring Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte.

Directed by George Miller.

Released by Universal.

Rated PG-13.

*** 1/2 .

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