They haven't renamed "The Shipping News" as "How Quoyle Got His Groove Back," but that's pretty much what they've turned E. Annie Proulx's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into.
With Kevin Spacey miscast as the oafish Quoyle, "Shipping News" follows "The Cider House Rules" and "Chocolat" as the latest installment in director Lasse Hallstrom's apparently endless series of unconvincingly life-affirming productions. "Shipping News" also follows its predecessors in its zeal to reduce complex literary material to predictable, audience-friendly elements.
It's a given that a book as eccentric, poetic and individual as Proulx's could never be accurately reproduced on the screen; as Hallstrom himself said in an interview, the novel was "almost provokingly undramatic." But is that any reason for a film so standard that it's hard to believe the book won so much as a prize in a Cracker Jack box?
What gives "Shipping News" a bit of a different spin than its Hallstrom predecessors is that the key problem this time around is not the unpromising script (by "Chocolat"-eer Robert Nelson Jacobs) but the decision to go with Spacey as the film's protagonist. A role like Quoyle--hopeless, helpless, an archetypal lost soul overmatched by life--would be a challenge for any actor. But for Spacey, it means negating and obliterating the intelligence and endlessly faceted sharpness that are his most reliable assets.
The result is a self-conscious performance that turns Quoyle into a pathetic individual who's difficult to care about, someone who more than lives up to the poetic jibe a co-worker throws at him: "You don't have the sense God gave a doughnut." More critically, it's a portrayal so unconvincing it makes it close to impossible for the rest of the film to function as intended.
"The Shipping News" opens with a primal incident in Quoyle's childhood, the time his father nearly drowned him in a particularly sadistic swimming lesson. It's a memory that recurs frequently to Quoyle in his series of mindless, dead-end jobs because, we are all but ordered to understand, this is a man who is drowning in day-to-day life. The tedium of Quoyle's existence is relieved for a while when he accidentally meets the savagely sensual Petal Bear (the amazing Cate Blanchett, who tears into the role like a carnivore into fresh meat). A marriage and a child (down from the book's two) with a woman whose profession is manipulating men is not fated to end well, and this one does not.
Just at the time when Quoyle is most at a loss about Petal, his father dies and his father's sister, no-nonsense yacht upholsterer Agnis Hamm (Judi Dench) shows up. A feisty type who drinks tea and calls Quoyle "nephew," Agnis convinces Quoyle and daughter Bunny (9-year-old identical triplets Alyssa, Kaitlyn and Lauren Gainer) to move to Newfoundland, "where our people come from."
It's bleak up in the hamlet of Killick-Claw, but the family's ancestral home (so determinedly dragged across the ice in flashback that "The Schlepping News" might be an alternate title) is still nominally habitable despite being deserted for 44 years, and Quoyle and kin move right in. Though he's never written anything (another change from the book that famously called him "a third-rate newspaperman"), Quoyle applies for and gets a job at the Gammy Bird, the local paper, writing up hideous car wrecks and (yes) the shipping news. There he meets some of the wall-to-wall eccentrics that seem to be the exclusive inhabitants of the world's small towns.
There's forceful editor Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn), who'd rather fish than edit, and his irritable No. 2, Tert X. Card (Pete Postlethwaite). Rounding out the group is the happy-go-lucky expatriate Nutbeam (Rhys Ifans) and the levelheaded Billy Pretty (Newfoundland native Gordon Pinset) who, in the film's most engaging section, teaches Quoyle how to think in headlines.
A satisfying job of work is fine, but in a film like this there's only one way to find your bliss, and that's by meeting an attractive member of the opposite sex. That would be Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore), visible a nautical mile off as the life force who will make Quoyle whole. Naturally his difficult daughter immediately befriends her "slower" son, and though there are a few melodramatic bumps along the way, it's clear as ice where this one is going to drop anchor.
"The Shipping News" doesn't think it's as silly as the above might indicate, but though many characters claim to be suffering pain, they don't have enough dimension for their problems to be taken seriously. The nominally emotional moments feel unearned, partially because many of the book's edges and eccentricities have been softened, and the film's "we face up to things we're afraid of because we can't go around them" philosophy is not particularly inspired. All that's left is the severe beauty of Newfoundland, which catches the eye but, like the rest of the proceedings, does little for the soul.
MPAA rating: R, for some language, sexuality and disturbing images. Times guidelines: adult subject matter.
'The Shipping News'
Julianne Moore...Wavey Prowse
Judi Dench...Agnis Hamm
Cate Blanchett...Petal Bear
Scott Glenn...Jack Buggit
Pete Postlethwaite...Tert X. Card
A Winkler Films production, released by Miramax Films. Director Lasse Hallstrom. Producers Irwin Winkler, Linda Goldstein Knowlton, Leslie Holleran. Screenplay Robert Nelson Jacobs, based on the novel by E. Annie Proulx. Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton. Editor Andrew Mondshein. Costumes Renee Ehrlich Kalfus. Music Christopher Young. Production design David Gropman. Art directors Karen Schulz Gropman, Peter Rogness. Set decorator Gretchen Rau. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.
In limited release.