Review:`Road’ a Maudlin Melodrama

October 18, 2007 at 11:56 am Leave a comment

“Reservation Road” is essentially a made-for-Lifetime melodrama with higher aspirations because of its award-winning cast.

Joaquin Phoenix, Jennifer Connelly, Mark Ruffalo and even Mira Sorvino who actually has been relegated to such cable flicks more than a decade after her “Mighty Aphrodite” Oscar are all better than the material.

Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”) directed and co-wrote the script with John Burnham Schwartz, based on Schwartz’s 1998 novel, about two families whose lives are connected by a fatal car accident.

Perfect Connecticut couple Ethan and Grace Learner (Phoenix and Connelly) are driving home one September night from watching their 10-year-old son Josh (Sean Curley) play the cello at a school concert. Also in the car is Josh’s younger sister, Emma (Elle Fanning). On the way, they stop at a gas station along the titular dark, winding road.

At the same time, screwed-up, divorced lawyer Dwight Arno (Ruffalo) is driving home from a game at Fenway Park with his 11-year-old son, Lucas (Eddie Alderson), a die-hard Red Sox fan. (The story has been moved up to play out during Boston’s 2004 run toward the World Series.) They also end up on Reservation Road.

Josh has gotten out of the car and is meandering on the side of the road at the exact moment that Dwight is speeding around a corner and not paying attention. He hits the boy then, in a panic, he speeds off. It takes the whole movie for him to admit to the crime, leading to a totally implausible, violent showdown between the two suburban dads.

But first, we must sit and watch as these people’s lives intersect through an extraordinary series of coincidences which make it seem as if there’s only one law firm and one music teacher in their idyllic New England town.

Sorvino plays Dwight’s ex-wife, Ruth, who was Josh’s cello instructor and who offers to tutor young Emma on the piano after his death. It’s a thankless role, requiring her to nag at her ex and grudgingly give in to his requests to spend more quality time with his son watching baseball, something he’d rather do than face his looming conscience.

Meanwhile, at the understandably devastated Learner household, college professor Ethan trolls the Internet seeking validation for his vengeful urges, while Grace screeches and cries (Connelly’s role is also strangely underwritten such a waste of the depth of her talent). Both responses end up feeling painfully maudlin.

Frustrated with the police department’s inability to find the hit-and-run driver, Ethan runs around town playing amateur detective, then seeks the help of a law firm to mount a civil case. Guess which lawyer is assigned to help him? The twist doesn’t add tension it’s just a ridiculous distraction.

Certainly everyone reacts differently to loss, which George acknowledges, but he merely goes through the motions and offers no insight. He also makes it obvious whom we’re meant to root for from the start. The Learners are an ideal family; Dwight, meanwhile, is so unreliable, it’s a wonder he made it through law school. There’s little exploration of the potential shades of gray in his motivation he’s a bad guy, and that’s it. Even an actor like Ruffalo with a capacity for subtlety and ambiguity can’t do much with that (though he does have a couple of good scenes in which Dwight tries to reconnect with his son).

Baseball serves as such a prevalent thread throughout that fans of the sport may find themselves rooting for Dwight to make it long enough to see his beloved team win before having to atone for his sins. As Bill Simmons says, then he can die in peace.

“Reservation Road,” a Focus Features release, is rated R for language and some disturbing images. Running time: 102 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.



Entry filed under: Reviews. Tags: .

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