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Nashville Scene Ashes to Ashes

Abject poverty gets the Hollywood treatment in 'Angela's Ashes'

By Jim Ridley

JANUARY 31, 2000:  Frank McCourt may indeed feel that the movie version of Angela's Ashes has captured the events of his memoir just as he remembers them, as the current TV ads proclaim. Still, don't you wonder how McCourt feels, watching two major studios spend millions of bucks to recreate his family's abject misery? There's something faintly obscene about Hollywood simulations of squalor, anyway--behind every pasteboard tenement set, there's a craft-service table larded with goodies and a bottom line to be fed. But it's especially galling in Angela's Ashes, which spends a lot of money to make poverty look like something that happened a long time ago in a country far, far away.

That country, of course, is Ireland, the setting of McCourt's memoir of growing up among devastating circumstances--sickness, starvation, sibling deaths, a father who drank all his earnings and eventually vanished. I'm only a few chapters into the book, but it's an amazing firsthand portrait of hard times--the kind of book that could speak across cultures to anyone in similar straits. The director, Alan Parker, whose heavy mitts delivered both Mississippi Burning and Pink Floyd--The Wall, serves up the story as a succession of anecdotes, linked by an impressively gray, somber look and a solid cast. Robert Carlyle makes canny use of his Full Monty charm as the ne'er-do-well father; Emily Watson plays Angela, Frank's long-suffering mother, who watched the family splinter as times grew less and less bearable.

The cast works hard, but the characters aren't sketched with much depth. Watson in particular is given so little to work with that she's a passive blank at the story's center. And Parker's ponderous, dully respectable treatment loses the vitality of McCourt's narrative voice. That hurts the most. McCourt's gallows humor puts a salve on his childhood's stinging cruelties. When he writes, on the first page, "Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood," the words ring with a survivor's rueful wit. When the same words are spoken as narration in Parker's film, they come off sounding weirdly self-important: The worse the poverty, the more important the movie must be. Particularly since Parker pays more attention to the props of impoverishment--chamber pots, rags, grease-stained papers--than he does to the people.

That's not to say that movies should never deal with poverty--there's a great film called Rosetta now winding across the country that's as harrowing a depiction of being poor as you'll ever see. But it's set in a recognizable present that makes you distinctly uncomfortable. It challenges you to consider living in the same world, whereas Angela's Ashes is a period piece that treats being poor as part of the past--the dank, disease-ridden flats of Limerick Town are as meticulously rendered as the '30s costumes and the horse-drawn carriages. As such, the movie's destined to produce no other feeling in its American audience than complacency; its basic message, reinforced by McCourt's words, is, "Boy, it sucks to be Irish."

I wouldn't feel so cynical about the movie version of Angela's Ashes if it had even the slightest whiff of passion or personal commitment. But the movie doesn't seem to have been made for any other reasons than having a popular literary pedigree and a chance of recouping its cost--a fraction of which could've fed people as bad off as the McCourts in the here and now.

Down to Nothing

I know almost nothing about the origins of 27-year-old writer-director Kris Isacsson's debut film Down to You, but I have my suspicions. The story is so rambling and filled with inane incident that Isacsson must've used all the notes he scribbled while daydreaming in college, yoking them to a structure that borrows liberally and ineptly from Annie Hall.

Freddie Prinze Jr. stars as Al, the college-age son of a famous TV chef (played by Henry Winkler). Julia Stiles is the art student who captures his heart. Her name is Imogen, which she explains to Al was "picked at random out of a baby book"--that sounds about right. Down to You details their whirlwind romance, their pregnancy scare, their big breakup, and their suicide attempts. Sounds like a heartfelt, romantic movie, right? Let me tell you about the subplots and costars.

There's Shawn Hatosy as Al's roommate, a drunken horndog who inexplicably turns up in a mullet for one scene just so Al and Imogen can make fun of him. There's Zak Orth as Al's other roommate, who--in a weird sort of alternate movie--becomes a porn star, a porn director, then a nationally known champion of free speech. There's the sloe-eyed Selma Blair as another porn star who hits on Al continually, just to give Imogen a reason to sneak around with a Jim Morrison look-alike named (get this) Jim Morrison. Then there's the scene in which Al talks to a spider, and the one in which he chooses which of two unlabeled bottles contains true love or romantic illusion--oh yeah, and the one in which he drinks shampoo. Sounds inventive and quirky, right? Let me tell you about the dialogue.

Isacsson apparently knew that he wouldn't have the budget to film everything he wrote, so he has his characters spew awkwardly configured exposition to cover scenes he didn't shoot. After a supposedly pivotal car wreck, the movie skips weeks of recovery with this screenwriter's brainstorm: "So, I see you've recovered from the accident!" When Imogen meets Al by a jukebox and asks if he likes Patsy Cline, he responds with this elliptical beaut: "I like all the females...Billie, Joni, Patsy...my Mom spins." Your mom spins? Oh--she's a deejay.

None of this would be worth getting upset about, except that the film was released by Miramax--where Isacsson was an assistant, and chairman Harvey Weinstein obviously thought he had the next Chasing Amy. Miramax may sit on The Lovers on the Bridge for two years, but it'll happily release this undercooked tripe, which demeans its two appealing young stars for a quick buck. The movie even has Stiles and Prinze perform that emptiest of teen-movie rituals, dancing clumsily to old soul songs--thus assuring we'll instantly dislike them and anything they do next.

But worst of all is the exposed-nerve tone of the romantic insights in Down to You. All the crises that befall the leads are as contrived as the supporting characters, who seem to have wandered in from a racy episode of USA High. That makes their pouting doubly painful to watch. How painful? Imagine a love letter you wrote to your high-school sweetheart before she dumped you, or even worse...after. --Noel Murray

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