What has happened to Kevin Spacey? Just a couple of years ago he was an actor at the peak of his craft, with a knack for choosing edgy projects. After turning in one electrifying performance after another in films like The Usual Suspects and L.A. Confidential, Spacey won one of the rare deserving Academy Awards in recent years for his confident star turn in American Beauty. Soon afterward, Spacey fell victim to one of the worst cases of Oscar-itis (also known as Nicolas Cage Syndrome) on record. Offbeat work gave way to treacly fare like Pay It Forward and the truly heinous K-PAX, in which Spacey sank to sub-Robin Williams depths of squirm-worthy bathos. Seemingly overnight, Kevin Spacey films devolved from must-see events to must-avoid status.
The Shipping News represents nothing so grand as a triumphant comeback for Spacey, but it at least suggests that all is not lost. In Lasse Hallstrom’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning E. Annie Proulx novel, Spacey plays Quoyle, a press worker for an upstate New York newspaper whose whirlwind courtship of wild child Petal (Cate Blanchett) leads to a quickie marriage and the birth of daughter Bunny. Before long, Petal’s flighty nature and open contempt for Quoyle results in a tragic event which drives the newly single father to pull up stakes and head for the old family homestead on the rocky shores of Newfoundland.
The movie’s early scenes are not encouraging. Blanchett’s Petal is a misconceived cartoon, all trash-talking and trampy makeup, and at first Spacey is shaky as well. His character is a mild-mannered and well-meaning bumbler, and Spacey relies a little too heavily on the sympathy card, in the tradition of his recently deceased mentor, Jack Lemmon. But the actor’s performance deepens once Quoyle has arrived in the steely gray coastal village of his ancestors. Approaching the local newspaper editor for a press room job, Quoyle instead finds himself a reporter on the "shipping news" beat. Initially covering the comings and goings of vessels in and out of port in a dry, matter-of-fact way, Quoyle gradually warms to the task and his writing skills blossom. At this point, Spacey lets a bit of his innate intelligence permeate what has been a fairly standard "dumb guy" role, and the result is a much more believable, and therefore sympathetic, portrayal.
It’s become clear that Miramax Films has a house style just as surely as parent company Disney does, and The Shipping News fits snugly within it. All the ingredients are in place – company man Hallstrom, who has now helmed the studio’s year-end Oscar hopeful for the third year running (following The Cider House Rules and Chocolat); a high profile literary property serving as the film’s foundation; a quaint, charming small town populated by eccentric locals; a handful of Academy Award regulars filling out the nooks and crannies (in this case Judi Dench, as Quoyle’s flinty aunt, and Julianne Moore, a standout as the Newfie school teacher Quoyle becomes smitten with); and on and on. It’s not bad, really – a little poky now and then, but a generally pleasant place to spend a couple of hours. Is that really the best we should expect of Miramax, though – or Kevin Spacey, for that matter? In a sense, actor and studio were made for each other at this juncture – they’ve both grown too cozy and cuddly, and they’re now overdue for a good shaking up.