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Movie Review

'The Virgin Suicides' an Affecting, Somber Tale of Repressed Lives

April 21, 2000|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sofia Coppola shows an impressive maturity and an assured skill in adapting Jeffrey Eugenides' novel "The Virgin Suicides" to the screen for her directorial debut. As the title suggests, it's a challenging undertaking that requires a smooth passage from pitch-dark humor to a stark finish. The result is a highly affecting film unafraid to exact an emotional toll.

A never-seen Giovanni Ribisi lends his voice as the film's narrator, Tim Weiner, a man looking back to his high school days 25 years ago in leafy, upscale Grosse Pointe, Mich., a community favored by auto industry executives for generations. Tim (Jonathan Tucker) and his pals became tantalized and then obsessed with the five beautiful Lisbon sisters, ranging in age from 13 to 17. Their father (James Woods) is a math teacher at their high school, and the sisters live with their parents in one of their neighborhood's more nondescript yet spacious homes. The girls' parents, especially their mother (Kathleen Turner), are fervently religious and extremely strict with their daughters, who face the world with enigmatic smiles.

The neighborhood has long come to accept the Lisbons as distant when it is jolted by the news that the youngest Lisbon, Cecilia (Hanna Hall), has attempted suicide by slashing her wrists. Her parents are sufficiently shaken to listen to a psychiatrist (Danny DeVito) when he says Cecilia would benefit from more contact with boys, which leads to them throwing the only party they've ever given. This means the neighborhood boys will have a chance to come in closer contact with all the Lisbon sisters than has previously been possible. Soon the campus hunk, Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) zeros in on Kirsten Dunst's Lux, the most gorgeous and forward of the sisters.

Trip is smart enough to ask Mr. Lisbon's permission to ask Lux to the homecoming prom, and when her mother says no, he's fast enough on his feet to suggest that he line up dates for all the sisters, thereby successfully offering the pretense of safety-in-numbers. But this night of freedom for the girls will have dire consequences. At the film's end Tim tells us that a quarter-century later he and his pals are still wondering why.

While subtle in the utmost, Coppola leaves us with an understanding of how things could turn out as they did. Most of us will conclude that the Lisbon sisters' course of action is consistent with that of young people intent upon punishing their parents regardless of the consequences to themselves.

When Cecilia slashes her wrists, a neighbor woman, secure in her well-appointed living room (heavy on the chintz, natch), suggests facetiously that it was her mother's hideous decor that drove her to it. The Lisbon home is in fact oppressively awful with dull furnishings in drab colors, its walls cluttered with tacky pictures awkwardly hung. There's none of the exuberance of the garish or the vulgar to amuse or lift the spirits but rather the clamminess of a total absence of taste and imagination.

Turner provides Mrs. Lisbon with her sultry voice and full figure; the woman's dowdiness suggests that she's so terrified of her innate sensuality that she feels compelled to repress it zealously in her daughters. There's a craziness in this woman's fervor that makes her akin to Turner's "Serial Mom" for John Waters. Woods' far from unsympathetic Mr. Lisbon is not such a bad guy, but he lets himself be dominated by his strong, shrill wife.

There are no fewer than 64 cast members in "The Virgin Suicides, and turning up in sharp cameos are Scott Glenn as the Lisbons' well-meaning priest and Michael Pare as the present-day Trip Fontaine. Dunst and Hartnett are as effective as Turner and Woods, and right down a very long line Coppola, daughter of that other Coppola, reveals a sure touch with actors. Hartnett makes witty use of his height and thinness; his Trip has a mastery of body language that is not lost on the opposite sex.

In a film in which so much is implicit rather than explicit a revealing atmosphere is crucial, and production designer Jasna Stefanovic and her team have done a masterful job of making the Lisbon home quietly dreadful; Nancy Steiner's conservative clothes for the Lisbon girls and their mother also contribute to the film's aura of repressiveness. "The Virgin Suicides" is successfully venturesome, but you need to know that it's also a real downer.

* MPAA rating: R, for strong thematic elements involving teens. Times guidelines: Subject matter is too intense for children.

'The Virgin Suicides'

James Woods: Mr. Lisbon

Kathleen Turner: Mrs. Lisbon

Kirsten Dunst: Lux Lisbon

Josh Hartnett: Trip Fontaine

A Paramount Classics presentation of an American Zoetrope production in association with Muse Productions and Eternity Pictures. Writer-director Sofia Coppola. Based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. Producers Francis Ford Coppola, Julie Costanzo, Dan Halsted. Executive producers Fred Fuchs, Willi Baer. Cinematographer Edward Lachman. Editors James Lyons, Melissa Kent. Music composed by Air. Costumes Nancy Steiner. Production designer Jasna Stefanovic. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.

At selected theaters.

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