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Map of the World (1999)
A Map of the World is a primer in lousy
moviemaking, and the result of what happens when a pedestrian director shoots a tone-deaf
script. Despite having a mouth-watering cast of extraordinary actors, it veers back and
forth between the bland and the cuckoo before it goes howlingly astray.
Alice and Howard
Goodwin (Sigourney Weaver and David Strathairn) and their two small daughters live on a
mom-and-pop dairy farm in rural Wisconsin. The Goodwins marriage seems strained but
functional they compensate for their daytime blankness by getting it on under the
blankets at night. One summer day, while babysitting her best friends kids, Alice
allows herself to be distracted long enough for the friends youngest girl to slip
away and drown in a pond. At this point, the movie looks like it is going to be about
forgiveness about Alice and her friend learning how to live with the accident, to
give it proportion. But even before the emotional fallout is fully resolved, a troubled
young mother from the school where Alice works as a part-time nurse accuses Alice of
sexually abusing her son. When other kids echo the charge, Alice is thrown into the county
lockup. Strangely passive, shed rather endure the abuse of her fellow inmates than
let Howard sell the farm for bail money. The balance of the movie focuses on Alices
efforts to prepare for her day in court while trying to keep her family together.
like this is a minefield requiring delicate negotiation, but director Scott Elliott
charges headlong across it, and everything blows up in his face. Instead of muting the
storys more maudlin elements, the movie turns Jane Hamiltons novel into a
dispensary of Life Lessons that Alice doles out in voiceover "There is so much
good, and if were not careful, it can slip away from us," being a fair example.
Map is the kind of movie that wants us to be charmed by a moppets shriek of
protest when shes interrupted on the toilet, and to find poetic resonance in its
central metaphor, a map drawn by Alice when she was a child herself.
Map takes place in
a daft universe where people dont resemble themselves from one moment to the next,
and where nobody notices how oddly everyone else is acting. Even if a lawyer would coldly
throw pieces of candy at a clients children while chuckling sadistically, would the
client really carry on the conversation as if nothing were happening? When Howard needs a
babysitter so he can visit Alice in jail, would all of his friends turn him down with
pod-people unanimity? Would a kind-looking family man really spit at Howards feet in
front of the kids, and wouldnt the kids demand to know why he was doing it? Such
questions dont matter because A Map of the World is only concerned with
making us feel. It doesnt care what we feel, or if the feeling of one second has any
connection to that of the next it just wants us to keep feeling.
Not a single scene
rings true in Map, and the jailhouse sequences in particular are clearly based on
guesswork. (It seems doubtful that the screenwriters have ever heard black teenage girls
talk.) Elliott is a stage director with no previous screen experience, and it shows. He
doesnt know how to mount action with any internal logic, so that while Howard
cant hear Alice yelling at him across the driveway in one shot, he hears her a
moment later when shes running full-tilt across a distant field. Elliott directs as
if he has a camera in one hand and a filmmaking manual in the other, and the result is a
Frankenstein movie, a lumbering patchwork of predictable shots that are crudely stitched
performance has drawn a lot of praise, but it may be her weakest ever. She controls every
scene shes in, but shes desperately overmatched by the incoherent script, and
she cant begin to convince us that the woman we see happily snapping at the elastic
on her bathing suit would ever face prison with Alices equanimity. Alice is supposed
to be tightly wound in some scenes (and utterly serene in others), but when Weavers
eyes roll around in her head and she begins a backward retreat, its hard to tell
whether its the actor or the character whos distancing herself from the
Strathairn is yet
again playing a veiled man who hides his feelings. Hes always eschewed characters
who are too articulate, but the milk-toast Howard who dozes off at the breakfast table
while a frying pan goes up in flames four feet from his head is verging on self-parody.
(Itd be nice to see Strathairn in a role like Verbal Kint for a change.) Julianne
Moore, as the best friend, plays the movies most believable character, but she
isnt onscreen enough to make an impression, and her scenes with Weaver are too
manufactured for the women to strike real sparks off each other. (This may be Maps
most unforgivable sin.) Arliss Howard overdoes sliminess as Alices lawyer, and for
some reason his physical gestures are out of synch with his speech patterns. The result is
like a dubbed performance: his hands are busy punctuating words hes already finished
speaking. Chloe Sevigny, as the white trash mom who causes all the trouble, isnt
asked to do much more than screw up her mouth in a sour pucker.
There are some
finer, darker ideas riding around in A Map of the World, but theyre
jettisoned before the end of the movie. Alice is an unfit mother in a very real sense.
Shes too pushed around by her own emotions to give children the steadiness they
need, and they can goad her into acting no better than they do. (Her oldest girl is a
particular pain, and eight year-old Dara Perlmutter shreds the films genteel
atmosphere in her tantrum scenes.) Alices self-destructive behavior and her
comparison of imprisonment to life on a desert island suggest that shes come to
despise family life and motherhood the life that shes saddled herself with.
But these ideas cant be developed without admitting that Alice is an unconscious
child murderer, and thats a place the movie refuses to go. Map is more
comfortable with presenting her as a slightly whacked nonconformist who must "find
her way in the world." Its the final insult to an already maligned woman.
- Tom Block