Thorns And All

Michelle Pfeiffer is in full bloom as a mom with fatal flaws in 'White Oleander.'

Movie Reviews

October 11, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Michelle Pfeiffer does more than epitomize ideal casting as the villain of White Oleander, the screen adaptation of Janet Fitch's Los Angeles-set novel. Playing an impossibly beautiful and talented mother who sees her daughter only as an extension of herself, Pfeiffer acts the part with a vengeance.

Twenty years into a phenomenal career as a dazzling beauty who is also a dazzling performer, Pfeiffer has always been underrated, perhaps because she makes it look so easy. Here she leaps into the role of Ingrid Magnussen -- a part that for many actors would be akin to leaping off a cliff -- and never looks back.

Ingrid is the mother as bad news and muse. A struggling visual artist (in the book, a poet), she's likable when she lets her adolescent daughter, Astrid, tag along to her low-level magazine job, and she's horrifying when she involves Astrid in the preparations for a murder.

FOR THE RECORD - In a review of the film White Oleander in yesterday's Today section, an incorrect first name was given for actress Alison Lohman. The Sun regrets the error.

As an artist, she's no fake. Showing Astrid her latest piece, an assembly of Polaroid portraits, she won't accept any glib compliment -- she wants Astrid to explain why it's "great." As a person, she's a monster. To Ingrid, harassing and then knocking off an ex-boyfriend -- a man she shouldn't have slept with in the first place -- is a proper way to restore aesthetic harmony in the universe. Her sense of justice and her standards can't be separated from malice or self-justification. She's proud and unrepentant. She can't see beyond her own sensibility.

It's a risky conception for a character -- a human being who hones herself into a stiletto -- yet Pfeiffer makes it work. Pfeiffer understands that her awfulness stems from a union of unworldly beauty and contrary intelligence. Ingrid's prime philosophic tenets are the aloneness of every person and the usefulness of suffering, and she doesn't believe in softening them for the young.

In the few scenes we have of her before the murder, Pfeiffer imbues Ingrid with a chilling, tantalizing distance. When she articulates the tingle she gets from the Santa Ana winds, the perception emerges from some slightly scary private place. And when Astrid visits her in prison, Ingrid creates her own zone of stillness amid tumult. She's a virtuoso at flashing Astrid a darting glance or smile that hooks the girl back into her mother's view of things.

Of course, the movie is about how the daughter tears herself loose. As Astrid, Isabel Lohman is smart without being overly precocious, sensitive without being soft. And director Peter Kosminsky has surrounded her with game, gifted troupers like Robin Wright Penn as the born-again dame who initially takes her in and Renee Zellweger as the next foster mom, a weak, caring actress whom Astrid loves.

But the film lacks just what Astrid's story needs: momentum and cumulative power. Mary Agnes Donoghue's workmanlike adaptation stays faithful to selections from the book, but doesn't approximate its potency. Part of the problem is that the filmmakers are too intent on keeping Ingrid from overwhelming the movie. They fragment the introductory action and make her homicide plot maddeningly hazy; if you haven't read the novel, you may not realize that Ingrid uses white oleander as a poison.

Ingrid, though, remains the figure who holds everything together. The sequences set in Astrid's foster homes and in a children's institution are jagged and abrupt rather than concentrated; they make complete sense only when Astrid reports on them to Ingrid.

It's not the fault of the performers. Wright Penn pitches her portrayal of a former bad girl at just the right peak of intensity, where her zealousness at going straight and holding on to her man (Cole Hauser) blurs with hysteria. Zellweger is heartbreaking as a bright, gentle woman who devalues her own virtues and can't defend herself against Ingrid's steely strength or the affable callousness of her husband (Noah Wyle). And Svetlana Efremova brings earthy zest to Astrid's last foster mom, a Russian immigrant and flea-market entrepreneur who delights in American materialism.

The males are no slouches either. Hauser balances tenderness and opportunism as Astrid's adult lover, while Wyle has down pat the self-satisfied slick of a show-biz family provider. Patrick Fugit from Almost Famous is all ungainly charm as the comic-book artist who is Astrid's true lover and kindred spirit. And there are moments when Kosminsky's direction and Elliot Davis' cinematography conjure images that reverberate in the memory, like a small boy shaking his head wildly in the dark so that Astrid won't tell police that his foster mother is the one who shot her in the shoulder.

But overall, you're left wondering why every big novel needs to be a movie. White Oleander would work better as a four-part miniseries -- or at least as a less conventional screenplay. Donoghue's script teaches us how Astrid comes to terms with spirituality, sexuality and the practical demands of life, without bringing us inside her crucible. As she ages from 15 to 18, the moviemakers might as well be marking her progress on a growth chart.

White Oleander

Starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Isabel Lohman, Robin Wright Penn and Renee Zellweger

Directed by Peter Kosminsky

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG-13

Time 109 minutes

SUN SCORE * * *

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