THERE HAVE BEEN commercials on TV lately where serious
men with big strong arms stare into the camera and talk about
how much Excedrin means to them. The emotional intensity of these
spots is staggering--nothing is more significant, they seem to
say, than using the right pill for the job. In fact, commercials
in general have a dramatic weight that's all out of whack with
the content. The actors are earnest, the lighting is dramatic,
the music swells--and is it really such a big deal if Cindy has
the sniffles? No, it's not such a big deal.
Crossing Guard, the new film written and directed by Sean
Penn, suffers from the same kind of hyperactive intensity. It's
a family drama with grand, Shakespearean themes, and every moment
is dripping with tension, conflict and pathos. It's essentially
a two-hour Excedrin commercial. As you can imagine, it gets pretty
exhausting. The story involves Jack Nicholson and Angelica Houston,
an estranged couple haunted by the death of their young daughter
at the hands of a drunk driver. Nicholson, not surprisingly, plays
a character who's slid into that antechamber of despair where
one sneers, exudes bitterness and binges at strip clubs. Houston
is remarried and has her life annoyingly together. Tension breaks
loose when the guy who killed their child is realeased from jail
and Nicholson decides his mission in life is to murder him.
As it turns out, the drunk driver is genuinely remorseful and
reformed. David Morse is magnetic as John Booth, a man trying
to come to terms with his guilt. He's nice, he lives with his
parents, he visits the little girl's grave. It's Nicholson, intent
on revenge, who seems to be the inhuman one.
All this sounds like the stuff of great drama, and at moments
Crossing Guard is pretty great. Sometimes the arc of the
plot and the experiences of the characters actually are profound,
but the rest of the time the light slants and the music churns
but nothing seems to be happening. Nearly all the scenes have
an undeserved emotional charge and inevitably end in conflict.
These characters can't get along, even for a few minutes. The
word "overwrought" springs to mind.
The structure of the film forces the intensity even further.
Penn cuts repeatedly between Nicholson hanging out with cigar-smoking
men in strip clubs to Morse, the reformed drunk driver, hanging
out with idealistic college students debating the nature of morality.
This formula doesn't work for two reasons: First, Penn repeats
it so many times you want to shoot him; and second, the equation
of strip clubs equals degeneration is tired, lazy and sexist.
Penn plops Nicholson among strippers as a kind of shorthand to
suggest how emotionally bankrupt he's become, but really, what's
so sinister about naked ladies? Stripping is totally legal and
women do it for a variety of reasons, but probably none of them
do it to represent man's dark side. If Penn wants to pick on a
legal, seedy occupation, why not bail bondsmen?
For all its failings, Crossing Guard is peppered with
engaging moments. Penn, of course, is an actor himself, and it's
in the area of acting where he takes the most risks. Many of the
scenes have an improvised feel, and there are a few heady moments,
rare in movies, where what unfolds between characters feels honestly
fresh and surprising. Most of these involve the charismatic Morse
(from TV's St. Elsewhere). In fact, it's worth the price
of admission just to watch him steal scenes from Nicholson, a
man forever doomed to do the same shtick. Sadly though, a good
portion of the improvisation conveys not spontaneity but an uninspired,
acting-class feeling. The plot is just too contrived to support
so much drama, and it ends up smacking of manufactured emotions.
Crossing Guard bears the marks of Penn's incomplete apprenticeship
under John Cassavetes, a '70s-era filmmaker who made dramas full
of improvisation and strange, powerful moments. Cassavetes often
used actors with real-life relationships--he and his wife Gena
Rowlands for example--and there's a sense of connection and tension
that spills over on film. Penn seems to be aiming for this by
casting Nicholson and Houston, a former item, as exes. The wonder
of a Cassavetes movie like A Woman Under the Influence
is that it seems as quirky and out-of-control as real life. Penn,
on the other hand, has everything in Crossing Guard under
control, from the carefully composed shots to the sometimes contrived
plot. The artifice is obvious; there's only an illusion of spontaneity.
Just as it's obvious that guy in the commercial doesn't really
have a headache.