Saturday, February 9, 2013

Earthly Possessions (1999)

Anne Tyler is one of my favorite contemporary authors. I love how she comments on society through humor and quirky characterizations. The only film that I had previously seen that adapted one of her novels to film was The Accidental Tourist, and that turned out surprisingly well. Earthly Possessions is an HBO adaptation of one of Tyler's novels from the first third of her career. I haven't read it, but most of Tyler's books seem to successfully lend themselves to cinematic interpretation.

Earthly Possessions stars Susan Sarandon as Charlotte Emory, a pastor's wife dissatisfied with her marriage. On the day that Charlotte decides to leave her husband Zach, she goes to the bank to withdraw money to make her move. While there, the bank is robbed. The robbery is foiled but not before the young would-be robber takes Charlotte as hostage. The robber is identified as Jake Simms, Jr. While the chatty Charlotte is on the run with Jake, she discovers that he's basically a good kid who has made some bad decisions in his life. She also finds herself attracted to him and the excitement that is now in her life. Eventually, she realizes that shes not cut out for a life of adventure.

I enjoyed the interplay between Sarandon and Stephen Dorff, who plays Jake. Both are excellent actors who inhabit the skins of their characters well, even if I do think that Sarandon is too smart an actress to be completely believable as a partial ditz. Dorff invests Jake with frustration, desperation, charm, and sexiness. It's a full-fledged performance that is so good that I wonder why he isn't a bigger star. Jay O. Sanders's role as Zach seems to be underwritten to me. Zach seems boorish at times and decent at others -- it makes me wonder if the marriage problems with Charlotte don't have more to do with her dissatisfaction. More successful is Elizabeth Moss (Peggy on TV's Mad Men) who is vibrant and optimistic as Jake's pregnant teenage girlfriend Mindy. Other cast members who are seen quickly in the film include Margo Martindale as the bus station ticket seller, Marge Redmond (Sister Jacqueline on TV's The Flying Nun) as a sour bank customer, and Alice Drummond as a high strung elderly woman whose car is commandeered by Jake in an escape attempt.

The movie is always fun to watch, but it really isn't constructed well dramatically. There are a lot of coincidences in the story, and the resolution is way too pat and easy for the seriousness of the events that have transpired onscreen. Furthermore, Charlotte is a character who never learned to drive and has never been out of her hometown. I'm sure there are people like that, but Sarandon has way too much pizazz and natural curiosity to effectively nail the character. Kathy Bates might have been a better casting choice. The movie's concerns are too serious to be sustained by the lighthearted techniques that director James Lapine uses in the film, such as occasional faux-documentary commentary by minor characters that Charlotte and Jake have encountered. Earthly Possessions could have easily been just as successful as a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie production. Grade:

I watched Earthly Possessions on DVD on February 4, 2013.

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