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Love and Suspicion: It's All in the Family

February 23, 1996|JACK MATHEWS | FOR THE TIMES

You don't need to be an artist or have taken a course in art appreciation to get the symbolism of the landscape sculpture that appears throughout Barbet Schroeder's over-earnest "Before and After." It is a crooked monolith, a huge, bulky, angular, rigid structure that, far from complementing its bucolic setting in the Berkshires, stands out in stark contrast against it.

Its creator is the successful landscape artist Ben Ryan (Liam Neeson), who installed it in his own yard, and it is soon apparent that the sculpture is a self-portrait. Ben is a stubborn, overbearing emotional bully and neither reason nor the elements can budge him.

Nevertheless, budging him is the task of "Before and After," a family drama adapted from Rosellen Brown's bestseller by Oscar-winning screenwriter Ted Tally ("The Silence of the Lambs"). It is the story of a seemingly happy, affluent couple--wife Carolyn (Meryl Streep) is a pediatrician--shattered by suspicions that their 16-year-old son Jacob (Edward Furlong) murdered his girlfriend, and of the father's obsession with saving his son from prison.

The suspense elements of "Before and After," the details of the girl's death and Jacob's role in it, are entirely secondary to the emotional conflicts they create within the family. The story is narrated, from some point in the future, by Jacob's younger sister Judith (Julia Weldon), whose voice wearily suggests we're about to learn how a perfectly good life can become perfectly awful in a single moment.

In the Ryans' case, that moment comes when a police friend (Daniel von Bargen) shows up one afternoon to question Jacob about the girl's death. Jacob's car is in the garage, but he's nowhere to be found, and the reactions of his parents--Ben becomes violently angry at the policeman for suspecting his son, while Carolyn fears that Jacob may also be in danger--sets up the dynamic for the rest of the movie. Both parents want to protect him, but in opposing ways, and in ways that create deep conflicts between their love for a child and their own sense of morality.

This is the most delicate sort of material to adapt. Dramatizing internal struggle is the novelist's bread and butter, and the filmmaker's most elusive goal. Writers can offer so much in the way of dialogue, and directors can suggest or demand certain performances, but it ultimately falls to the actors to pull it off, and they didn't succeed here.

Neeson is physically perfect for Ben, a sculptor who works on a huge canvas, fashioning his sculptures from wood and parts from heavy machinery. But Neeson extends the metaphor way too far; he plays Ben as a blockhead, and though everything he does--destroying evidence, plotting false defenses--is out of either love for his son or his guilt over past emotional abuses, he remains an annoyingly unsympathetic figure.

It's clear that Ben wasn't meant to come off so harshly, but there he is, and Neeson's portrayal sabotages the relationship between Ben and the rest of the family, and particularly with Carolyn, a smart, sensitive woman whom you would expect to have found a better match. Streep is in fine form, as a mother overwhelmed by tragedy, but there is so little chemistry between her and Neeson or, more to the point, between their characters, that the acting all shows through.

Furlong is a thin, short, fragile-looking kid who has to almost look straight up when talking to Neeson, and though their contrasting sizes may underscore their emotional relationship, the difference is so dramatic you may wonder if there isn't some genetic subplot coming.

What serves for sorely needed comic relief is the Ryans' spectacularly amoral lawyer (Alfred Molina), who gives cheesy raps about the irrelevance of truth to justice and promises to get Jacob off if they'll go along with whatever lies or strategies he devises. At that, he turns out to be no match for the belligerent Ben.

At one point in the midst of the crisis, Ben brings up the Old Testament story of Abraham who agreed to carry out God's order to slay his beloved son Isaac in order to demonstrate his faith. The real point of that parable, Ben says, by way of rationalizing his behavior to Carolyn, is "Who'd want a father like that?" It's a question the audience may throw back at him.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for some disturbing images of violence, brief strong language and some sensuality. Times guidelines: Photos of a dead body are particularly gruesome.

'Before and After'

Liam Neeson: Ben Ryan

Meryl Streep: Carolyn Ryan

Edward Furlong: Jacob Ryan

Alfred Molina: Panos Demeris

Daniel von Bargen: Fran Conklin

Julia Weldon: Judith Ryan

A Caravan Pictures production, for Hollywood Pictures, released by Buena Vista. Director Barbet Schroeder. Producers Schroeder and Susan Hoffman. Screenplay Ted Tally, from Rosellen Brown's novel. Photography Luciano Tovoli. Production design Stuart Wurtzel. Editor Lee Percy. Costumes Ann Roth. Music Howard Shore. Art director Steve Saklad. Set decorator Gretchen Rau. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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