White Oleander focuses on teen beauty Astrid Magnusson (Alison Lohman) and her equally beautiful mother Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer) an accomplished--if self-centered and manipulative--artist who tends to drag her daughter a budding artist in her own right into her own neuroses. To Astrid however her mother is a goddess--at least until police charge Ingrid with poisoning her lover in a fit of jealousy and she is sentenced to life imprisonment. Astrid is immediately placed into the foster care program and each new home presents a different set of rules for the young girl. There's life with Starr (Robin Wright Penn) an alcoholic-turned-born-again-Christian who becomes violently jealous of Astrid. There's life in a child-welfare institution where Astrid meets Paul (Patrick Fugit) a comic book artist with whom she immediately connects. Then there's life with Claire (Renee Zellweger) a lonely woman who can't have children of her own and whose husband (Noah Wyle) is never home. Claire shows Astrid the kind of genuine love the girl has never experienced but Ingrid haunts them needling and sabotaging her daughter's happiness at every turn. Astrid could simply go off the deep end but instead she becomes more resilient ultimately reaching a place where she can love her mother without letting her destroy her life. Sapville.
The acting talent in Oleander is definitely the movie's saving grace. The actresses make the film's trite dialogue almost palatable. Pfeiffer is amazingly beautiful and strong as Ingrid and she manages to burn the character into our brains even when she's not on the screen. Ingrid's relationship with her daughter is at times hard to watch: Ingrid digs at Astrid to try and control her but all this really does is expose Ingrid's own insecurities and failings as a mother. Pfeiffer relishes these moments and plays them to their full effect. Playing the other two "mothers" in Astrid's life the always good Penn takes the thankless part of Starr and turns it into something memorable while Zellweger's expert turn as Claire has a broken-doll quality that perfectly captures the character's fragility. The real dilemma for the film's producers was finding the right Astrid--an actress who could hold her own at the heart of the story--and whose talent would hold up opposite Pfieffer. Lohman was chosen from a cast of thousands and does a fine job playing Astrid; the camera clearly loves her. Still she needs a little more experience under her belt before she can truly shine. Fugit who was once the newcomer himself in Almost Famous (and did a much better job the first time out) manages to create a believable rapport with Lohman as her boyfriend Paul.
OK this is a gripe to all Hollywood executives: stop using sentimental material to make major motion pictures even if it is from a bestselling book. While Fitch's novel tells a moving story it does not necessarily translate into an inspiring film. Director Peter Kosminsky does his best with Oleander to create a haunting atmosphere and there are times when the material is elevated especially in the scenes between Zellweger and Lohman and those that explore the tragedy that befalls them. Yet ultimately the film plays like an after-school special. This isn't to say an intimate story can't make an interesting movie (The Good Girl and Igby Goes Down are just two examples of what's out there right now) but Oleander fails to engage its audience in any kind of meaningful way.
August 17, 2001 8:30am EST
In the same vein as the 1963 comedy romp It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and the 1981 The Cannonball Run Rat Race centers around a group of people who go dashing around the country for a big prize. In this incarnation the action starts in Las Vegas where billionaire hotel owner Donald Sinclair (John Cleese) gathers up eight people in his casino and sets them off on a race for $2 million hidden in a locker in New Mexico. He then places bets on whose going to get there first. The eight consist of two scheming brothers (Seth Green and Vince Vieluf) a disgraced NFL referee (Cuba Gooding Jr.) a mother and the daughter she gave up for adoption (Whoopi Goldberg and Lanei Chapman) a beleaguered family man and his wife (Jon Lovitz and Kathy Najimy) an uptight lawyer (Breckin Meyer) who hooks up with a cute helicopter pilot (Amy Smart) and a goofy narcoleptic Italian (Rowan Atkinson).
Like its predecessors Race combines a group of really talented comedians. Somehow this technique harms a film rather than helps it. It stems mostly from the fact that having such a large cast only gives the actors a limited amount of screen time. It's hard for any of them to truly shine. Yet in Race there are a few that just have to stand out. Cleese and Atkinson are among the best of the veterans especially Atkinson whose comedic physicality comes almost solely from his elastic face. And as far as the best of the younger set Green and Vieluf do a fair job having to wade through the horrendous antics presented to them shining for a brief moment when Vieluf (who can't speak properly because of his tongue stud) tells a sob story about their mother. However Goldberg Lovitz and Najimy are completely wasted--and Gooding Jr. just comes off as ridiculous.
In a nutshell Race is just too darn silly much like Mad Mad World was. Outrageous comedies work better in small doses such as There's Something About Mary or even Caddyshack. But when eight different story lines vie to outdo each other in outrageousness it's disastrous. Things can't get much worse than a car chasing after a hot-air balloon somehow hooking a cow to the balloon and having the cow end up hitting the windshield of a bus full of Lucille Ball look-alikes. Or how about crashing Hitler's car into a meeting of World War II veterans and having an ink mark on your upper lip that looks suspiciously like a mustache? There are a few brief moments where you chuckle out loud like when Cleese and his band of cronies start betting on which hotel maid would drop first while hanging from a curtain rod. Other than that the film simply lapses into pure drivel.
One day Joe Dirt a radio station janitor gets dragged onto a popular radio show where the host (Dennis Miller) at first browbeats Joe but then becomes intrigued as Joe tells his life story on air--and so do the listeners. Apparently little eight-year-old Joe got separated from his parents in the Grand Canyon and the boy sets out to try and find them. Through his travels he is ridiculed to no end for his rocker hair (which is actually a wig fused to his head; it's too lame to explain--just go with it) and style of dress as well as his unique view of the world which is fairly optimistic considering how messed up his life has been thus far. He meets some friends along the way including an American Indian (Adam Beach) who sells weak fireworks by the side of the road; a mobster (Christopher Walken) who is under a federal witness protection plan; and his one true love Brandy (Brittany Daniel) a sweet down-home girl who lives in the perfect town Silvertown. But it's his quest to find his parents that drives him onward until he eventually discovers the truth.
David Spade…Dennis Miller…Christopher Walken? One would think that with this kind of talent attached to the film it would actually have a funny moment or two. But alas that is just not the case. Spade trying to play a white trash hick without any of his sardonic eyebrow raising simply misses the mark. He may be trying to break from his usual sarcastic shtick making the character Joe Dirt a sympathetic simpleton whose sheer kind-hearted spirit makes positive things happen to him a la Forrest Gump but it's not in any way believable. Sarcasm is Spade's trademark and he needs to stick with it. It seems all the sarcasm is poured into Dennis Miller's cocky radio show shockjock. But his usual witty repartee comes off as obnoxious and over the top. Walken is as quirky as ever which neither harms nor helps the film (although he gets to do some fancy dance moves at one point). And singer Kid Rock might be kicking himself for choosing Joe Dirt as his first feature film.
Only by the power of Adam Sandler who was the executive producer did this film get made one would guess. The script can't decide whether it should go for all out gross or romantic comedy. Spade who co-wrote the film can't be counted on to carry a film by himself since his last film Lost and Found (1999) was a complete disaster. Still at least that film had some redeeming qualities since Spade did what he does best-play the smart-ass little guy who gets the girl. In Joe Dirt the character comes off only as pathetic and the lessons he is supposedly teaching the rest of the country mean nothing.