There are some theatre- and filmgoers
who would walk across a freeway at five o'clock to hear Blythe
Danner read a soup-can label from the median traffic barrier. Not
only a superb actor, whose warmth and emotional instincts are
matched by a wry intelligence, Danner is also a role model for
middle age -- glamorous yet no-nonsense, both generous and
shrewd; she seems to navigate her way through life with
unostentatious moral incisiveness and a hyper-aware, yet somehow
relaxed, sensitivity. Not to mention those eyes, that great
ash-blonde hair, and the velvety rasp of one of the most alluring
voices on stage or screen.
The affection and respect of her fans
might well lead them into such odd venues because the fact is
that Danner is, very sadly, hard to find. Other than in the
occasional New York stage appearance (she has one Tony and has
been thrice nominated) -- or at the Williamstown (Massachusetts)
Summer Theatre Festival, where she reigns as an annual draw --
Danner may be enjoyed only infrequently. Woody Allen has coaxed
her from time to time into his projects, and her interest in
evolving talents leads her occasionally to small, independent
films. Happily married to a successful network producer and
mother of the fine young actor Gwyneth Paltrow, Danner is clearly
undriven by her career.
One can only speculate as to why the
spirit moved her to agree to appear in first-time writer/director
Bart Freundlich's The Myth of Fingerprints. One is simply
left to yearn to see her in something more compelling than a
pretentious, derivative, rather precious drama about a family
reunion at Thanksgiving. We may never know what Danner saw in the
project, but she was not alone: Julianne Moore, Noah Wyle, Roy
Scheider, Brian Kerwin, James LeGros, Michael Vartan, and Laurel
Holloman also signed on. One can only assume that this roster is
what got Fingerprints a world premiere at the 1997
Sundance Film Festival. And perhaps they perceived something in
Freundlich's potential that is not yet apparent. Anyone who can
interest this lineup of talent in a "training-wheels"
movie must have something.
However, all we get in this first effort
is a rather painful waste of these adventurous and interesting
actors. In the worst role of all, Scheider -- who is best when
pushed away from type, in roles where his severe good looks are
forced to break into joy or loquacity -- plays a dour,
stone-faced Maine patriarch who is so petulant that we couldn't
possibly care less about his cursorily indicated inner demons.
It's like watching Roy Scheider do a parody of Roy Scheider.
Danner is his curiously long-suffering wife. They are joined for
an alternately cozy and strained Thanksgiving holiday by
daughters Moore and Holloman and sons Wyle and Vartan, along with
their significant others. Freundlich is no more skilled at
handling the intimate ease of family humor when things are going
well than he is with his portentously introduced flashbacks (or
worse, expository dialogue) of the family skeletons. The Myth
of Fingerprints seems equal parts bad Bergman, bad Chekhov,
and bad TV Movie-of-the-Week; except for the odd moments of glory
plucked out by an excellent cast, it's a fairly deadly brew.
Danner makes even her small,
disconnected, underwritten scenes a cause for minor rejoicing.
Although it seems a dire case of casting her pearls before swine,
she can curve a vocal inflection unexpectedly at the last
syllable or laugh almost gutturally after expressing some
delicate sentiment, and, suddenly, this lifeless, self-serious
little piece wakes up for a moment and sings. Students of acting
should be made to watch this performance to see what a canny,
feeling actor can do with next to nothing. Fans of Blythe Danner
may take it as yet another of the crumbs for which we have
learned, frustratingly, to settle.