Hugh Dancy as Buddy (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)
I have such fond memories of hating The Hours, and Evening, on the surface, appeared to offer a similar round of literary pretentiousness, even some of the same cast members. Imagine my disappointment, then, on finding a perfectly ordinary bad movie, with nothing peculiarly distinguished about its badness. Evening opens with the gentle sound of ocean waves under austere white-on-black credits. Digitized fireflies flicker against charcoal clouds in the night sky, before the camera alights upon unnaturally blue water with sunrise on the horizon. A motionless sailboat, in which Claire Danes lies outstretched, rests in the bay. Vanessa Redgrave stands nearby on the craggy shore, wearing falsely blond hair and a formal gown of black lace. Redgrave and Danes are playing the same character, and there the old Ann Lord perches, beaming at her younger self, the former Ann Grant, prostrate in the boat. That’s as close to The Hours’s mannered ghoulishness as we get.
The movie flip-flops in time between the present, as Ann lies, not at sea, but in her deathbed, cryptically alluding to a past her grown daughters know nothing of, and the early 1950s, when Ann was just a sweet young thing, trying as she may to pass herself off as some sort of nightclub singer, though never are the words cabaret or jazz used, because neither of them could describe exactly what Claire Danes does to the American popular song. “Time After Time” seems to be the only tune in her repertoire, and she sings it in shrill, atonal quavers, abysmally unaware of how to put a song over.
I may as well as cut to the chase: There isn’t a single good performance in the entire movie. Eileen Atkins, as a sensibly clad night nurse who doubles as a benign Angel of Death, manages not to disgrace herself, even though her alter ego takes wardrobe cues from Jessica Lange in All That Jazz – costumer Ann Roth outfits Atkins in a gossamer wrap over sleeveless white-sequined tulle. Atkins looks bustily smashing in such form-elevating couture, yet the effect in the hushed still of Evening is ludicrous. Natasha Richardson survives with a few scraps of dignity intact, despite being the bearer of such soap operatic psychobabble as “Don’t ask me to apologize for my life again, OK?”
Visually, the director Lajos Koltai and his cinematographer Gyula Pados design a color-coded scheme for the film that works well enough. The bright, saturated glow of the Rhode Island past contrasts with the dull augustness of the Anywhere, USA present. And Koltai directs with a smooth sense of confidence, as if oblivious to the trite awfulness of Susan Minot and Michael Cunningham’s adaptation of Minot’s novel. The screenwriters are striving (at least, I guess they are) to uncover great truths about women’s lives at key moments. Yet all Minot and Cunningham have done is to recycle daytime drama in broad strokes. Ann, at the end of her days, remains knotted-up by the events of a weekend half a century past, during which she met a man whom the filmmakers ask us to believe was her deepest love. But infatuation isn’t the same as love; Ann and Harris, an earnest, tight-lipped young fuck, as hatched-faced and wooden as a totem pole (as Patrick Wilson embodies him), have a few chats by the shore and go to bed exactly once. The memory of him remains so potent, it’s implied, as to have overshadowed her subsequent marriages. Maybe there’s a grain of truth in the premise, but none of it feels true, and the miscast actors can’t render the script’s emotional cheating any less flat, and the movie would also have to then come out as somewhat critical of Ann’s shallowness. It doesn’t. The movie views Ann, young and old, in the noblest possible light. With mantra-like repetition, we hear the phrase, “There’s no such thing as a mistake,” mouthed by various persons, just in case there’s any sap sitting out there in the dark who might actually fear that Ann will face up to her own lack of judgment.
In the flashbacks, Ann attends the high society wedding of her friend Lila (Mamie Gummer, who has no chin, a defect that makes her look constipated) and enjoys being great pals with Lila’s alcoholic brother, the pink-shirted Buddy (Hugh Dancy), a self-loathing bon vivant who fancies becoming a novelist. The tone is way off in their banter about the novels he intends to write, yet can’t begin. In sooth, Minot and Cunningham can’t exhume the pseudo-literary stench from their impeccably polished impossible dialogue. When Ann first arrives at the family manse, a rambling, old money bungalow by the sea, she can scarcely contain her awe, what with being a bohemian from Greenwich Village and all. Lila, a vacant-faced sorority honey, waves aside Ann’s real estate envy with, “It’s just a very old dream my family can’t seem to wake up from.” While much has gone into the look, the furnishings, and the clothing styles of the 50s, musically speaking no one much cares. There’s a brief dance sequence in which Danes and Dancy bop in front of picture postcard bay windows to the strains of an anachronistically bad recording of “I’ve Got the World on a String,” sung by Michael Bublé in lounge lizard cadences grossly disrespectful of lyrics and melody in a way that no pop crooner from that era would have countenanced. It’s meant to be light and gay (in the old-fashioned sense), I suppose, in counterpoint to the storm brewing. But Bublé’s singing is so plastic and joyless that the scene fizzles. There are more serious problems: When Ann verbally berates Buddy in front of the bridesmaids and groomsmen, after the wedding, what are we intended to glean from Ann’s sanctimonious speech? Does she feel threatened by him? Does she consider her boorish remonstrance to be a dose of common sense? It’s impossible to tell, given Danes’s amateurish performance. You can’t get a handle or a reading on her. She was dreadful in Stage Beauty, but who wasn’t? In Evening, however, Danes dispels all lingering hopes: She here firmly establishes herself as the single most jejune actress of her generation, worse than either Natalie Portman or Scarlett Jo-Horror. Dancy has technique to draw upon, but the requisites of his role, which leave no cliché of alcoholic behavior un-resuscitated, by their nature mandate that he wallow in perspired histrionics.
I wish Koltai had done something boisterous or otherwise out of step, to work against the grain of the script in some way, to resist mise-en-scène such as this: As Danes and Wilson kiss in a cabin, fireflies spark outside in the night woods; presto, we cut back to Redgrave’s death chamber, and those CGI-flies circle around her pillow, and there’s Atkins by the dying old dearie’s side in that spangly white gown. Like the current Italian film Golden Door (another vastly overrated bomb), Evening is ga-ga in way that feels insulting.
The present-day scenes fare no better. Fussing over the bed-ridden Redgrave are feuding half-sisters Richardson and Toni Collette, whose over-rehearsed lines in no way suggest the verisimilitude of heated arguments. Collette has done good work in the past – her performance in Japanese Story was one of the greatest triumphs of acting I’ve seen – but not lately (that I know of) and certainly not here. She gives the role of the underachieving daughter a spin similar to the one she gave the overachieving daughter in the despicable In Her Shoes, only with much less energy. How many of these unhappy ugly ducklings is Collette going to play? And how much self-actualization must she undergo? Collette has almost nothing to do in spite of her extended screen time, and the camera lingers on her cruelly, not strikingly, overemphasizing her bulbous eyes. The script saddles her with a badly written boyfriend named Luc, a stoner idiot who is, of course, in a band, and is just as badly acted by Ebon Moss-Bachrach, who’s required to gesture his hands in that stereotypical movie-stoner way after this exchange with Collette.
She: Guess what?
She: I’m pregnant.
He: You’re kidding!
How much were Minot and Cunningham paid to come up with those lines? Can an undeserved Range Rover full of award nominations and the smiling back-flips of our nation’s bribe-proof critics be far behind?
Last but not least, Meryl Streep shows up at the eleventh hour looking like an owl, her face shrunken small and pinned by oval gold earrings that match her snobbishly coiffed short hair. As the aged version of Lila, she wears a frumpy white taffeta jacket and matching skirt with pearls, and together she and Redgrave seem ready to take on the roles of Norman and Ethel Thayer in some entirely unnecessary production of On Golden Pond. Reunited 30 years after Fred Zinnemann’s Julia, Redgrave and Streep remind us that we are all aging and dying, and we had better keep a stiff upper lip about it. And we had better just march on. In this instance, the march will be to a video store to find Julia, and to re-discover how much better they were then. – NPT
June 19, 2007