Thursday, September 1, 2005

BELLE DU JOUR

Posted on Thu, Sep 1, 2005 at 4:00 AM

*****
Junebug
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Rated: R
Website: http://www.sonyclassics.com/junebug/
Release Date: 2005-09-02
Cast: Phil Morrison
Director: Amy Adams, Embeth Davidtz, Benjamin McKenzie, Alessandro Nivola, Frank Hoyt Taylor
Screenwriter: Angus MacLachlan
Music Score: Yo La Tengo
WorkNameSort: Junebug
Our Rating: 5.00

Her supporting performance was one of the highlights of Catch Me If You Can, and now Amy Adams gets to cash in the good-will chips she earned as the sweetly vulnerable Southern girl who almost stole Leonardo DiCaprio's heart. Adams essentially plays the same character in the culture-clash dramedy Junebug, but considering the keenness of the portrayal – and how she extrapolates it here into new realms of homespun insight – she can keep working it as long as she pleases.

The movie isn't instantly identifiable as an understated treasure. At first, it seems to be a cute but remote story about a high-born, Chicago-based art buyer (Embeth Davidtz) who, after six months of marriage, is finally going to meet her husband's North Carolina family. The couple is headed for his sleepy homestead partially for this momentous rendezvous, but also so that Davidtz's Madeleine can secure a deal with a nearby outsider artist she's hot to showcase in her gallery. The elements are in place for a mildly amusing fish-out-of-water tale. Then Adams shows up on the screen as the husband's chatty sister-in-law, Ashley, who is seriously pregnant, congenitally curious about the outside world and thus desperate to learn all there is to know about her family's newest member – RIGHT NOW!

Adams won a Sundance award for her portrayal of this deeply lovable motormouth, and it's easy to see why as her character takes Madeleine under her wing, hammering her with friendly queries and introducing her to local pleasure rituals, like shopping for beauty products at the mall.

The character may seem doltishly unaware of the challenges she really faces, including a standoffish husband (Benjamin McKenzie) who's a near-total washout at meeting her needs. But a closer look reveals her as a paragon of courageous optimism – a spiritual warrior with the airbrushed exterior of a Precious Moments figurine. Scriptwriter Angus MacLachlan crystallizes that small-town nobility by endowing Ashley with one of the grandest, most quotable lines of dialogue heard in a film this year. And his openheartedness extends to many of the movie's other characters: Madeleine could have been a caricature of socialite slumming, but she's genuinely beguiled by Ashley; likewise, McKenzie's loutish Johnny verges on being a hayseed Stanley Kowalski – until a telling moment reveals his undernourished kindlier impulses.

The film isn't without its flaws. Director Phil Morrison (like MacLachlan, a newcomer to features) pads the space between scenes with interior and exterior tableaux that are meant to convey the languorous pace of small-town life. It's an interesting choice, but it tends to bog down the narrative. And the pivotal character of George (Alessandro Nivola) – Madeleine's husband, Ashley's brother-in-law and the impetus for the entire story – disappears from the action for long stretches, indicating that the filmmakers view him as a strictly utilitarian construct. But none of those errors is worth the docking of even half a star. Like the people and the philosophy it endorses, this movie is precious for its very imperfection. It's blessing on anyone who gets to see it.

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