Three female stars glow in `Sunshine State'

Movie Review

August 02, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC



Intermittently throughout Sunshine State, Mary Steenburgen, who gives a splendid comic performance as a small-town Chamber of Commerce honcho, can't help letting the effort to stay positive during her "Buccaneer Days" weekend (a new "tradition" minted as a tourist ploy) smudge her character's determined smile. Her expressions of weariness echo what moviegoers may feel, too, as writer-director John Sayles' latest attempt to craft a state-of-the-union movie - in this case, centered in Florida - marches toward its second hour en route to completing its 141-minute running time.

In films like City of Hope (1991) and this one, Sayles fashions a kind of big-screen narrative that many of us wish he could pull off: capturing the knotty entanglements of commerce and progress and the illusory quality of "real" traditions in the United States. Here, he hammers his stakes down in the fictional coastal spot of Delrona Beach, Fla., erects a narrative tent big enough to contain two dozen major characters and piles in enough flirtations and double-crosses to fill a night-time soap for half a season.

At first, it's exciting to see an eclectic assortment of Americans tumble through: a 15-year- old arsonist, well-heeled golfers cracking wise about selling the dream of taming tropical nature for retirees, competing developers taking aim at the small businesses and homes that dot the coastline. But for all Sayles' ambition, he's not an energizing ringmaster. Comic relief aside, he has a lot more fun plotting out social cross sections than realizing them with his performers.

Indeed, for a canny writer like Sayles - whose forte, to my mind, is still the short story - interspersing a quick scene with a fresh character is the equivalent of an action director tossing chase scenes into a routine adventure: They provide bursts of acceleration, but fail to breathe life into the material. The closest Sayles comes to conjuring a sense of intrigue or wonder is forcing us to ponder who the new figures are and how they relate to the rest of the cast. Yet this ploy only heightens our letdown when their depths turn out to be shallow and their interconnections contrived.

At least one of Sayles' subplots takes hold of the imagination. Delrona Beach sits next to the black enclave of Lincoln Beach, which exists as both a geographic relic of segregation and an emblem of black pride. Precisely because, in the 1920s and '30s, they were usually closed out of desirable locations, successful blacks bought up the beachfront property and made it a center of African-American culture, where jazz musicians would let off steam after gigs at white venues.

As an old-timer and community activist named Dr. Lloyd (Bill Cobbs) laments, that kind of black pride has vanished. Integration has often meant going to generic fast-food restaurants instead of an authentic (and black-owned) barbecue joint; the younger generations haven't produced what used to be called "race men" (that is, men dedicated to uplifting their race).

Sayles' richest character is a professionally disappointed actress named Desiree (Angela Bassett) who left Lincoln Beach 25 years ago and returned to visit with her anesthesiologist husband (James McDaniel). She comes to grips with both the positive and negative legacies of the pioneer black middle class of her mother (Mary Alice) - and her own weakness for the sizzle of our current black-superstar pop culture. As Desiree goes through the most complex journey of any of Sayles' Floridians, Bassett proves once again that she's a bona fide modern movie star: She makes an audience instantly feel what she feels, especially when her emotions are perilously mixed.

The Lincoln Beach scenes are so compelling, and carry such a fascinating twist on the movie's central issues of commercialism and change, it's a mystery why Sayles didn't focus his whole movie on them. A couple of performers, though, make the blander, more predictable Delrona Beach scenes bearable. Steenburgen, as noted, pulls off a high-wire act, bringing satiric intensity without caricature to the role of a limited woman trying to pep up her community.

Edie Falco - yes, Mrs. Tony Soprano (and the title star of the too-little-seen Judy Berlin) - is astonishingly good as a divorcee with deep roots in Delrona Beach, who runs her father's motel and restaurant business and feels trapped by it. Falco breaks up with a golf pro and falls for a high-class carpetbagger of a landscape architect (Timothy Hutton). She decides to cut away from her past and present without carrying sentimental dreams of her future.

With a drawling, self-aware humor and a variety of slouches, Falco plays a woman treading water in her life. She uses everything, including her Southern accent, to convey her character's saving orneriness. No other performer has gotten more - or even anything - out of the cliche putdown, "Tell him to take a long walk down a short pier." (She imbues the word "pier" with a sort of threatening purr.) Then again, no actress this good should be asked to. The only gold in Sunshine State comes from its three female stars.

Sunshine State

Starring Edie Falco, Angela Bassett, Timothy Hutton, James McDaniel, Mary Steenburgen

Directed by John Sayles

Released by Sony Pictures Classics

Rated PG-13 (brief strong language, a sexual reference and thematic elements)

Time 141 minutes

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