A lot of talented people get torpedoed by a dreary, sudsy script in Wayne Wang’s Anywhere But Here. Adele August (Susan Sarandon) packs up her unwilling daughter, Ann (Natalie Portman), and flees from small town Wisconsin to Beverly Hills, where Adele expects to find a wider range of opportunity, a more worldly environment for herself and for Ann. "I’m not gonna see you as a nothing girl, in a nothing job, in a nothing town," she says to Ann, but it is clear immediately that she is talking as much – or more – about herself than she is about Ann.
It never becomes more than a two character film, though two brief, almost cameo roles – Ann’s best buddy, her cousin Benny (Swawn Hatosy) and her L.A. boyfriend (Corbin Allred) are played with substantial charm. It might have served the movie well if either of those characters had been given a larger role in the proceedings, because the two leads are just not interesting enough to carry the nearly two hours on their own.
Adele is a classic "type" – often in denial of reality, unable to sustain a primary relationship, brash, laughing on the outside, fast talking, bubbling over with perennial false optimism and cutsie catch phrases. Sarandon does as much as anyone could have done within the limitations of Alvin Sargent’s script, which never gets beneath the surface of the character. By about half way through the film, it’s impossible to have sympathy for her anymore because she emerges as essentially selfish, self-centered and shallow; that she loves her daughter isn’t sufficient to compensate.
Though there are parallels, she’s no Auntie Mame. For all her eccentricities, Mame was smart, imaginative and perceptive. Adele comes out more insensitive than not, and none too bright. Even a woman from Wisconsin (twice married at that) would know better than to fall for a beach pickup and announce her love after a one night stand.
Portman is a pleasure when Wang gives her a chance to be dry-eyed. She is beautiful and believable as a teenager saddled with a gypsy mom. The film spans about three years and a lovely effect is achieved in letting Adele change from a slightly awkward, rebellious 15 to a wiser, more sophisticated 17 year old. Portman’s performance carries whatever pleasures the film offers; since the Adele character is never more than a construct, Ann is an antagonist with only a straw protagonist to fill out her drama.
There are some amusing lines scattered thoughout ("He’s more than just a dentist – he’s writing a screenplay!") and an occasional visual gag (Adele taking a drag on her cigarette in the middle of her TV yoga exercise). But all too often the script is forced – just happening to have two run-ins with the same cop, a death out of the blue – for either comic or tragic effect, effects which are not earned by substantive characterization or meaningful plot development. And it is surely redundant to have Ann telling in a voiceover that she felt sad at the funeral, when we are seeing her crying her eyes out.
It’s hard to tell where responsibility lies here. Surely the script is at fault for the missing center in the film. Could any director have made it work? Probably not. But while Wang has made a film that looks good with a slickly Hollywood style, he misses too many opportunities. In particular, his vision of Beverly Hills is as stale as yesterday’s croissant – the palm trees, the mirror-glass windows, the mansions, the kids at high school looking like they’re at the beach. Wang should be a better director than this – but his poor choices in scripts are proving to be his undoing.