At a glance Wayne and Eileen Hayes (Robert Redford Helen Mirren) lead a perfect life. They live on a gorgeous estate in a Pittsburgh suburb where Eileen the quintessential Martha Stewart maintains a seemingly perfect household. But when jilted ex-employee Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe) kidnaps Wayne for ransom their idyllic life slowly begins to show signs of wear and tear. On the home front an FBI agent questions Eileen about Wayne's ongoing infidelity something she believed was in the past. Wayne meanwhile is being led at gunpoint to a clearing in a forest. While he understands Arnold's motives i.e. money Wayne doesn't quite remember how he knows his abductor and spends most of the trek trying to figure it out and devising a means of escape. The film goes back and forth between Eileen and Wayne's storylines slowly feeding the audience pertinent information about their relationship. But Eileen's predicament--to keep her adult children from finding out the truth about their father's extramarital fling--pales in comparison to Wayne's life-and-death struggle. In the end Wayne and Eileen come to the same realization: that they truly love one another despite their flaws. The sentiment however may have come too late.
Considering how focused The Clearing is on its three main stars it's surprising how little character development there actually is. Redford Mirren and Dafoe are wonderfully cast in this film but rather than fleshing them out the storyline only enforces the first stoic impressions of their characters. Take Redford's character Wayne king of the car rental business who is aptly described in the film as "the man Hertz and Avis are afraid of." Throughout the story we discover he is a charismatic businessman who treats every employee with equal importance. We also learn that he hasn't always been the best father or husband. But there's nothing really meaty in any of it and certainly nothing to make us like much about him. Audiences will perhaps be more in awe of Redford the screen legend than Redford as Wayne. Equally unlikable is Mirren's character Eileen. Not only does the Hayes home look like it should be featured in the pages of Martha Stewart Living but the filmmakers seem to have gone out of their way to make Mirren look and act like the embattled housekeeping maven obsessed with projecting a perfect appearance. Upon discovering her husband never ended an affair with a woman from his company her biggest concern she is that her two children now married and living their own lives don't find out. Whether it is to maintain their father's perfect image or because she doesn't want to be judged for standing by him throughout his marital infidelity is never really explored. Rounding out the cast is Dafoe as the seedy and lowbrow kidnapper Arnold. Oddly Arnold's character is the best explained in the film but who wants to cheer for a psychotic antagonist?
Pieter Jan Brugge who makes his feature directorial debut here doesn't inject any oomph into a somewhat original concept. Brugge explains the story as an "opportunity to say something about the American dream and the price people paid in its pursuit as well as the price paid by those it has eluded." But while the director gives this stale money-doesn't-buy-happiness premise an intriguing kidnapping spin it's one that like most ransom demands never quite pays off. For example there is a scene in The Clearing in which Redford and Dafoe take a cigarette break during their daylong trek through the woods. Brugge seems to pay extra close attention to a book of matches that Dafoe hands to a handcuffed Redford who then obscures it in the palm of his hand. Is he going to use the matches to Macgyver his way out of the cuffs or somehow free himself of his captor? No--the matches never amount to anything. The biggest red herring of all however is the painstakingly slow buildup that leads to a predictable and unspectacular denouement. What's more the lackluster story and its colorless characters are paired with equally drab settings such as the Hayes' monochromatic stone mansion and the wet and dreary forest.
The golden envelopes won't open until March 26, but Oscar is already shining for two honorary recipients.
Warren Beatty has been named the recipient for the Irving G. Thalberg Award for career achievement in film. The award, named after former MGM production chief Irving Thalberg, who died of pneumonia at age 37, honors outstanding film producers. Beatty is the only person to be nominated for producer, director, writer and actor at the same time twice, for 1978's "Heaven Can Wait" and 1981's "Reds." Four of the films he has produced have been nominated for Best Picture -- "Bonnie and Clyde," "Heaven Can Wait," "Reds" and "Bugsy."
An Honorary Academy Award will also be given to Polish director Andrzej Wajda, who introduced films that depict the effects of war, including "A Generation" (1957), "Kanal" (1957) and "Ashes and Diamonds" (1958). He later made romantic films, comedies, epics and dramas, but returned to the battlefield numerous times. His controversial film "Man of Iron" (1981), chronicling the solidarity movement in Poland, was submitted to the Academy for consideration for Best Foreign Language Film. The Polish government unsuccessfully tried to withdraw the film, and it was eventually nominated.
MORE AWARDS: The Producers Guild of America has announced the list of nominees for the Darryl F. Zanuck Theatrical Motion Picture Producer of the Year Award.
The Golden Laurel hopefuls are: Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks for "American Beauty;" Michael Stipe, Sandy Stern, Steve Golin and Vincent Landay for "Being John Malkovich;" Richard N. Gladstein for "The Cider House Rules;" Armyan Bernstein, John Ketcham and Norman Jewison for "The Hurricane;" and Michael Mann and Jan Pieter Brugge for "The Insider."
The awards ceremony will take place at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles on Mar. 2.