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A long day's journey into `Evening'

Despite a stellar cast, the story of regret for a love lost in the '50s gets muddled.

June 29, 2007|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

An impressive pedigree doesn't always guarantee a felicitous outcome, as any number of Hapsburgs or Hiltons will confirm. Unfortunately, the same goes for Lajos Koltai's adaptation of novelist Susan Minot's "Evening," which despite its fine source material and roster of formidable talent -- to glance at the poster is to realize that under no circumstances should these people be allowed to board a plane together -- lurches clumsily across two very long, disconnected hours, reducing Minot's, sprawling, ethereal story to a pop psych nugget about embracing life as it comes.

Not that it must have been easy to wrestle this particular multigenerational tome into something suitably cinematic. Minot's novel is as interior and free-associative as they come. The morphine haze deathbed ruminations of a dying woman, Ann Lord (played in her youth by Claire Danes and in her last gasp by Vanessa Redgrave), it spans three unhappy marriages, the birth of her five children, the death of one, her disappointing artistic career and her brief, long-ago affair with the man who may have been, possibly by default, the love of her life.

Minot took some initial passes at adapting the film, which was later taken over by Michael Cunningham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Hours" (whose book was adapted into an Oscar-winning screenplay by David Hare). Paring down major events and condensing characters -- reducing the brood of kids, for instance, to a pair of daughters, and the marriages to a cursory mention and a scene of domestic drudgery -- freed Cunningham to focus on a new-to-the-story vaguely bi-curious threesome that echoes themes from his own work, but doesn't do the movie any favors.

The narrative slowly circles Ann's dying regret, a romantic disappointment that the ensuing 50 years have done nothing to diminish, lurching clumsily between deathbed scenes and golden memories of an apparently perpetually dusky weekend Ann spent in Maine, in the '50s, at the wedding of her best friend, Lila Wittenborn (Mamie Gummer). There she found herself caught up in a brief but tragic love triangle with Lila's drunken brother Buddy (Hugh Dancy) and the handsome son of the Wittenborns' former housekeeper, a young doctor named Harris Arden (Patrick Wilson). Though a minor character in the book, Buddy has been expanded here into a doomed lush whose affections for Ann and Harris veer in a similar direction. Gone is Harris' pregnant fiancee, and with her conflict and momentum.

As it stands, the love affair between Ann and Harris feels too flimsy to have spawned a lifetime of regret, and its demise feels toothless and unsatisfying.

While the link between Gummer and her real-life mother, Meryl Streep, who makes an appearance near the end as the older Lila, is evident, it's all but impossible to trace a connection between Redgrave's delirious, dying Ann and the version of her younger self. Danes' Ann is a New York bohemian, completely out of place in the wealthy, conservative milieu of Lila's wedding and in the world of the movie -- which the screenwriter and director have pumped up from repressive New England WASPs to flashy Newport society types (Newport R.I., as it happens, stands in for Maine).

Danes is a solid screen presence, but her character as written is passive and rueful. Harris may well be her "first mistake," as she tells her daughters, but error implies choice, and Ann appears to be all but a stranger to those. Rather than enlighten us as to what happened between Harris and Ann, and how, exactly, she came to marry the lock-jawed best man at the wedding (and later some other guy who snaps at her), Cunningham and Koltai return us again and again to the lugubrious Massachusetts house where Ann lays dying, attended by her daughters, smug matron Constance (Redgrave's real-life daughter Natasha Richardson) and sour bohemian Nina (Toni Collette). As Ann returns obsessively to the fateful weekend when she met, loved and lost Harris with the grim single-mindedness of a jilted teenager, Nina and Constance engage in an epic battle over that bummer of a pointless argument, women's choices and whether kids equal fulfillment or just get in the way of it.

For all of its class-act bona fides, "Evening" lurches between the morose and the sentimental, with occasional incursions into the absurd -- though, naturally, with talent like this onboard, it can't help but have its moments. The single laugh comes near the beginning, courtesy of Glenn Close as Lila's mother, as she agonizes over the seating arrangements for the wedding. And Gummer and Streep turn out well-realized characterizations of the WASP daughter who will dutifully become her mother. Otherwise, there's very little to recommend about this shapeless, plodding piece, which no doubt will inspire dozens of critical predictions about how we ladies will like it. Poor ladies, how we suffer.

"Evening." PG-13 for some thematic elements, sexual material, a brief accident scene and language. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes. In limited release.

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