Family Matters

Junebug

Junebug, which netted Amy Adams an Oscar nomination for her pregnant, desperate-for-acceptance, non-sequitur-spouting Southern motormouth, is a typically indie meet-the-parents family drama. The characters are quirky and elusive, and the resolutions are muted if they exist at all. It’s a pleasant enough movie that should merit little discussion.

But director Phil Morrison, working from a script by Angus MacLachlan, has an affection for empty physical space, silence, and the way sound travels through a house at night. The result is a movie infused with eerie, unacknowledged loneliness, a film that recognizes that six people sharing a house don’t necessarily share any closeness.

It’s a subtle effect, achieved through tone more than content. It establishes underlying themes in the film of the bleeding of family space into personal space, and of disjunction. The house’s walls allow them isolation, or a room in which to have a conversation (or sex), but it strangely gives them no genuine privacy. At the same time, the family members are not connecting with one another in any meaningful way, even though they aren’t any more dysfunctional than the typical American clan.

The false security of physical separation, then, finds an analogy in the false intimacy that we like to think a home fosters. Although Junebug doesn’t make the case nearly so bluntly or dramatically, it tries to dispel the widely held cultural illusion of the inherent warmth and comfort of family. Kin, it seems to be saying, is hard work.

So while Adams’ performance stands out for its spiritedness, it’s a bit of an anomaly, a blast of nervous energy in an otherwise subdued picture. Much more characteristic are the movie’s two churlish brothers: the elder who brought his bride to meet his family yet spends nearly the whole visit lying on the couch or otherwise ignoring her, and the younger who is a contemptuous, inarticulate boor.

The film has plenty of lovely, perceptive moments — along with that aching quiet — yet it suffers from a surfeit of coyness and ends up fuzzy. The primary character is the new spouse (Embeth Davidtz), but the title strangely refers to the unborn child. A detour into the work life of the younger brother illuminates (and lightens) the person but seems out-of-place in the movie. And an act of violence is in-character yet is so sudden and without context or preparation that it feels like a manufactured emotional climax. These are minor issues, and perhaps even justifiable choices, but they don’t quite cohere.

It’s clear that Morrison and MacLachlan want Junebug to be greater than, more real than, and different from most movies in this genre, but its vagueness, its lack of focus, is frustrating. When the film was over, I recognized that it had accurately and somewhat meaningfully portrayed family life, but I wondered: So what?

Proof

Upon seeing a stage production of David Auburn’s Proof a few years back, the missus and I declared it un-fuck-up-able. That is to say: Grade-schoolers could put the play on, and it would still be good.

For evidence, look no further than John Madden’s film version from last year. The movie’s lead is a grossly miscast Gwyneth Paltrow, the structure is rote (simply mimicking the play), and the direction is pedestrian. So while Proof deserved a vigorous, rigorous transformation from stage to screen, it got the hack treatment, and it’s still worth seeing.

Paltrow plays Catherine, the daughter of a mentally ill math genius (Anthony Hopkins), and after he dies, she struggles with her own emotional and mental health. Her clueless sister (Hope Davis) apparently didn’t inherit the math, bonkers, or sensitivity genes, and suggests that Catherine really needs some good conditioner, some food, and a new outfit. And math protégé Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal) is going through the notebooks of Catherine’s father, trying to figure out if there’s anything mathematically valuable — or even lucid — in his mad scribblings.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning play is so good because it’s rich in theme, resonance, and emotional and intellectual stimulation, yet it’s also accessible, compact, sturdy, and relatively straightforward. The questions of how to evaluate a claim that cannot objectively be proved, and to what degree trust should enter the equation, are obviously but elegantly balanced by a field in which the proof is the ultimate goal. The treatment is nuanced and subtle, and the blend of brain and heart is stunning.

Unfortunately, Madden’s version, co-written by Auburn and Rebecca Miller, is dully competent. It remains true to the source material but adds only minor things: professional performance and Chicago locations. Paltrow is appropriately a wreck but is hard to buy as her father’s mathematical successor; Hopkins’ eyes are full of mischievous, probing curiosity in the movie, along with poorly disguised panic, while Paltrow’s performance is too focused on the character’s emotional state to effectively express her intelligence. Gyllenhaal doesn’t convey anything well; he didn’t fully digest the stage dialogue and ends up spitting it out as if to a live theater audience.

Yet the main disappointment is that Auburn, Miller, and Madden didn’t re-imagine Proof for film. There’s nothing wrong with the play, but it was created for the stage, and for the strengths and limitations of the stage. It’s an imaginative, smart, thorough work about innovation, and science, and insanity, and family, and faith, and obligation, and sacrifice, and there’s not a moment in it that’s not deeply felt.

I’m not saying they should have turned Proof into π 2 (or would that be π2?), but director Darren Aronofsky has been particularly clever in visually expressing similar motifs — the beauty of math, academic obsession, and extreme mental and emotional states. It seems nearly shameful to give a bracing, invigorating work such as Proof a treatment this mundane, rote, and steadfast.

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