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John Sayles tries Robert Altman

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In the course of his relatively long but somewhat subdued career in the cinema, John Sayles has pretty much done it all, and now and then even, as they say, had it all. Beginning, like a lot of filmmakers of his generation, with an apprenticeship with the legendary schlockmeister Roger Corman, he may not have earned the great fame and big bucks of such Corman colleagues as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, and Jonathan Demme, but he’s collected a closetful of awards, great and small, gaudy and prestigious, including the usual plaques, medals, and statuettes at the usual festivals from Cannes to Tokyo, along with various critics’ prizes, Golden Globes, and Academy Award nominations. While he may not attract the general public recognition of another more or less independent writer-director, say, the eternally fading Woody Allen, many people know his Eight Men Out and more recently, Lone Star, both of which attained some commercial as well as critical success; and he is, after all, one of the darlings of the art house crowd.

            Much of Sayles’ high standing among the cinema cognoscenti derives from his long commitment to subjects of some political and sociological interest and importance. He took a somewhat nostalgic look at the turbulent ’60s in The Return of the Secaucus Seven, made a satirical fantasy about racial issues, The Brother From Another Planet, and perhaps most successfully, in Matewan attempted a really unusual and even adventurous work, a retrograde 1930s social consciousness film about a labor action in the mines of West Virginia. His best known and most successful picture, Eight Men Out, based on Eliot Asinof’s book, also in fact deals with a kind of labor action, the infamous Black Sox Scandal, the deliberate loss of the 1919 World Series by the grossly underpaid players of the Chicago White Sox.

            While those works exhibit an appropriate sincerity and earnestness, they frequently also display the major defects of his writing and directing style, a tendency to compose plodding narratives that proceed one laborious step at a time, rather like building a wall brick by tiresome brick, and a further tendency to fall apart after completing about three-quarters of their length, as if those bricks lacked sufficient mortar. In his new movie, Sunshine State, Sayles mixes a number of his typical subjects and concerns, but attempts a somewhat different narrative technique, apparently borrowed from Robert Altman. Unlike Altman, however, Sayles somehow cannot tell his story with any efficiency, but transforms the characteristic Altman techniques into yet another lumbering, talky examination of an entirely relevant issue that, because of its slow pace, dissipates most of its possible wit and energy.

            As the title indicates, the setting is Florida, specifically a small community called Delrona Beach, where two separate sets of the usual rapacious developers want to raze the buildings, dispossess the inhabitants, cut down the palm trees, and replace it all with condominiums, assisted living centers, and those wonderful strip malls. In the process of showing the developers at work, Sayles reveals something of the history and personality of the community and its people. The task requires the presence of a large ensemble of players, whose paths sometimes intersect so that they can talk about both past and present and one of the movie’s grand themes confronts the passing of time and the inexorable march of history.

            As in an Altman film, everything takes place within a constricted period of time, in this instance the second annual celebration of Delrona Beach’s ersatz Buccaneer Days (as Mary Steenburgen points out, people don’t realize how hard it is to invent a tradition), which provides a background, both satirical and pathetic, against which the characters interact. Edie Falco, reluctantly managing the motel and restaurant that her ailing, blind father (Ralph Waite) refuses to sell, finds herself involved with a landscape architect (Timothy Hutton), who works for the bad guys. Angela Bassett, home for a visit after many years, encounters the football hero who impregnated her, and discovers that he wants a slice of the pie when the developers take over the Black community of Seaside Beach. In a story that never fully develops, a community leader (Gordon Clapp), overwhelmed by gambling debts, takes bribes from the real estate sharpies and at the same time, keeps making abortive suicide attempts.

            Those characters merely serve as a few examples of the many stories that Sayles weaves through the film, all of them dependent on the constant contrasts between past and present, the force of memory, the bittersweet nostalgia that accompanies any recognition of inevitable and generally unwelcome change. Although just about all the people in the large cast manage their characters and lines competently, Sayles himself displays a good deal of clumsiness in his attempts at overlapping sequences and crisscrossing narratives. Without the grace and skill of Altman, who practically patented the method, he turns what should be light, quick movement and brief character revelations into his familiar dull and talky exposition.

            Except for a few lines here and there, especially those delivered by Alan King as a sort of chorus commenting on the action and meanings during a golf game, very little of the dialogue displays much in the way of zip and sparkle. A few terrific actors, especially Edie Falco, carve out a sense of authenticity from the drabness of Sayles’ material, and though the director’s story certainly deserves telling, oddly, he seems the wrong person to tell it. Whatever his talents and skills, John Sayles is no Robert Altman.

Sunshine State, starring Edie Falco, Jane Alexander, Ralph Waite, Angela Bassett, James McDaniel, Bill Cobbs, Mary Alice, Gordon Clapp, Mary Steenburgen, Timothy Hutton, Tom Wright, Alexander Lewis, Perry Lang, Miguel Ferrer, Charlayne Woodard, Cullen Douglas, Alan King, Richard Edson, Michael Greyeyes, Charlayne Woodard, Eliot Asinof; written, directed, and edited by John Sayles. Little.

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