Georgia

Tucson Weekly

DIRECTED BY: Ulu Grosbard

REVIEWED: 04-25-96

THE NOMINATION OF Mare Winningham for an Academy Award this year was dismaying for many Tucsonans, since Georgia, the film she was nominated for, never even opened here. Now, finally, Georgia--a difficult, uneven and ultimately rewarding movie--is coming to town for the final days of the Arizona Film Festival.

Most movies, including independent films, tend to conform to the unspoken rules of structure and content. Georgia is one of the few commercial films I've seen recently that manages to do away with many of these conventions at once. The results are exhilarating, but a little disorienting, too. For example, time jerks and flows through this movie in unprecedented fits and starts. Before the opening credits have even finished running, an entire little subplot has been tossed off in the background, practically in fast-motion, concerning Sadie (poor little Jennifer Jason Leigh), a hotel maid who goes on a bender and hits the road with a blues man. By the very next scene she's left him (forever) and is watching a concert in slow, real time.

These shifts work the same way parts of Leaving Las Vegas worked--by mirroring Sadie's confused, drunken consciousness. Sadie happens to be the unstable, eye-liner lovin' younger sister of the eponymous Georgia (Mare Winningham), a successful country-folk singer. The two have a difficult relationship, to say the least. Sadie wants what Georgia has--fame, talent, stability; Georgia, in turn, seems to derive at least some of her famous "centerness" from Sadie's volatility. This movie doesn't spin out a conventional plot so much as trace the emergence of a pattern--Sadie fucks up and Georgia saves her; Sadie fucks up in order that Georgia will save her, etc.

Georgia manages to get away with this plotlessness because the interactions between the characters are so unexpected and complex. Especially captivating is the relationship between Sadie and Axel (played with offbeat humor by Max Perlich), the liquor-delivery boy who falls for Sadie even though she's all drunk, desperate and surrounded by empties. And, though nothing decisive happens, the bond between the two sisters is continually explored throughout. In the end, the lack of plot is justified by the inevitable lack of sense or progress in Sadie's boozy, mainlining ethos. Despite the title, Georgia is really Sadie's story. Her sister embodies an ideal, a safe haven, but like the Brazil of Brazil, she's forever a representation.

What intrigued me most about this film, though, was the singing. Both Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mare Winningham have extremely long numbers and, in my opinion, neither of them is any good. Leigh, in particular, couldn't sing her way out of a box. This at least is in keeping with her character, Sadie, who is meant to have passion and drive but lacks talent. What's so interesting about the numbers is that they call the intentions of the filmmaker into question. Clearly, Sadie is not meant to be as talented as Georgia, but in letting Leigh perform repeatedly, for excruciating lengths of time, director Ulu Grosbard seems to be conveying the idea that Sadie really does have some spark of talent. Otherwise, wouldn't he be deliberately tormenting us?

Or is he deliberately tormenting us? Sadie's performances are painful and embarrassing for her friends and family--why not for us too? For me, it was impossible to tell if the director was intentionally creating an uncomfortable situation for the audience, or if he had merely misjudged, particularly since the same experience is repeated with Mare Winningham. She's meant to be the talented and successful one, but her singing struck me as corny and annoying. Her performances, too, are endless. I was reminded of Robert Altman's Nashville, where the musical numbers are intentionally insipid (he had his actors, rather than real musicians, write them). Altman's intentions were clearly satirical (at least most of the time), but Grosbard's intentions are far from clear.

I think some viewers may be justifiably annoyed by this muddiness, especially since the musical parts of this film practically qualify as torture. I'm fascinated, though, by the openness they leave for interpretation. I recently saw a woman dressed in perfect, mid-seventies style--feathered hair, halter top, faded jeans--but without the self-conscious irony that usually accompanies retro style. And she was far too young to be one of those people who found a look she liked and just hung on. Like Georgia, it was impossible to interpret if she was conscious of her idiosyncratic choices, or just out-of-it. How often do we encounter such mysteries?

--Stacey Richter

Other Films by Ulu Grosbard
The Deep End of the Ocean

Film Vault Suggested Links
Vanya on 42nd Street
Keys to Tulsa
Ida Lupino: Queen of the B's

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