'Before/After' fizzles into melodrama

February 23, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Given the pedigree behind it, "Before and After" is a surprisingly and, one might even say, bitterly disappointing film.

Good lord, what an assemblage of talent! The original novel was by Rosellen Brown, the screenplay by Ted Tally ("Silence of the Lambs"). The director is that Euro-sophisticate specialist in the nasty, Barbet Schroeder of "Single White Female" and "Reversal of Fortune." The stars are Meryl Streep (as in the Meryl Streep) and Liam Neeson (as in the Liam Neeson).

But the movie, after a provocative first hour, just fizzles off into something flat and unengaging, and ends up as a loud kitchen-sink melodrama, with people screaming accusations at each other over the breakfast table. It could put you off scrambled eggs forever.

The film watches the prosperous Ryan family unravel. The father, Ben (Neeson), is a world-class metal sculptor who is able to support his family on a gorgeous estate in rural Massachusetts, one of those houses that, when you drive by, you think, "I hate whoever lives there unless it's John Updike or David Letterman."

Ben hulks about with a welder's mask, overalls and the look of an Irish poet who's being hunted by British Intelligence for planning the Easter Uprising. This is a very gifted actor, but he's extremely irritating in this movie. There's something so precious and studied about his every move, his extreme awareness of the camera, his surrender to showy rage at the drop of a pin. He's not acting, he's posing.

Meanwhile, poor Streep is acting, but the role is so much weaker, she's all but engulfed. She never dominates, because the script rarely lets her. Her Carolyn Ryan is a pediatrician, but she seems surprisingly naive and shockable for someone who's worked in a major hospital amid the wreckage of human tragedy.

But the Ryans' own tragedy is stalking them. It arrives in the form of a decent cop late at night with bad news: A town girl has been found brutally murdered in a snowy farm field, and it turns out that the Ryans' wispy son Jake (Edward Furlong) has been dating her and was seen picking her up in town.

The Ryans can't believe such a thing, but when they check the bedroom upstairs, Jake has fled. It gets worse: Ben goes into the garage, finds bloody evidence of the crime and, in a fit of guilt and anger, destroys it.

For the first of its two hours, "Before and After" seems to be headed somewhere. Under the X-ray of the crisis, the family's pathologies are revealed. Ben has a tyrant's temper and a smoldering disappointment in his son. Carolyn is congenitally unable to believe ill of anyone and is genuinely shocked at how hard a game of hardball the trial will be. Jake, who is apprehended after five weeks on the lam, is a troublesome specimen, almost catatonic. Meanwhile, the townspeople, who seemed to have accepted the rich outsiders, turn against them almost in tribal fashion.

But what holds this together is the oldest of all story forms, the mystery. Who did it? Why? Is Jake guilty? Was someone else involved? What happened in that field?

And then, in a piffle, "Before and After" destroys itself. It's a structural oddity possibly traceable to the original book, but on-screen, it kills the movie: We find out exactly what happened at the halfway point.

The movie folds. All tension evaporates. The center does not hold. The center does not even exist, for crying out loud! Instead, Tally's script struggles gamely to find a new issue around which to organize itself, settling on the issue of truth.

In the end, a kind of rough justice is served, but the movie never comes close to delivering the kind of power and drama it seems to promise. It's too much yelling in the kitchen, to almost no avail.

'Before and After'

Starring Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson

Directed by Barbet Schroeder

Released by Hollywood Pictures

Rated PG-13 (some gore, adult themes)

... **

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