It’s not a conflict most of us are new to: the butting heads of an evangelical Christian and an atheist. Of course Matthew Chapman’s thriller The Ledge takes this typical opposition and adds a salacious complication: a beautiful woman. Now with such a ubiquitous conflict Chapman has lots of room to explore more fully the back and forth between these two schools of thought but unfortunately the film only skirts that concept and uses it as a more of a means to an end rather than a conversation.
The film focuses on three different men and in that two different debates. The first pair comes together when one of them threatens to jump to his death from – you guessed it – a ledge. The first man Officer Hollis (Terrence Howard) finds out his children aren’t biologically his right before being called to talk Gavin (Charlie Hunnam) off his perch. Of course as he finds out Gavin is on the opposite side of that fence; Hunnam’s character not only covets but sleeps with his neighbor’s wife. While this conflict of interest for Howard’s character is one of the more interesting aspects of the film it's overshadowed by the clandestine love affair and a slew of turgid inconclusive theological discussions.
As Hollis tries desperately to sort out his own demons and get Gavin off the roof the would-be jumper slowly unravels the details of the romance that landed him there. If he doesn’t jump at noon “someone else” dies. Now it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that “someone else” is Shana (Liv Tyler) the wife of that evangelical Christian neighbor Joe (Patrick Wilson). Is that enough plot for you? Because it was certainly more than enough for me. As we wind our way through this ambitiously complicated story we encounter Joe’s textbook impenetrable Christian ideals thrown right up against Gavin and his homosexual roommate. Oh yes the plot tries to get into that debate as well.
The capable cast does its best to bring the hefty winding story back down to earth and they almost succeed. Hunnam is the weakest of the bunch but he’s really there as a bit of beefcake to tempt Tyler’s sheltered character. The real heavyweight here is Wilson who despite being dealt a fairly narrow character who rattles off the same overzealous discourse we’ve heard time and again gives his performance everything he’s got. Joe isn’t much more than his stalwart religion and his mounting anger but Wilson tries damn hard to offer just a little something extra. Howard similarly lends weight to his character’s story though it unfortunately becomes little more than an afterthought once the romance between Gavin and Shana gets going.
In fact that romance is the most enjoyable aspect of the film even though it begs us to focus on the theological and moral questions at hand. The forbidden love builds awkwardly and organically something so many films tend to gloss over in order to get to the all-important first kiss. Luckily for many of the big questions that go unanswered in the film their chemistry carries the plot along and almost manages to distract us from their lack of resolution.
The Ledge seems to be a case of Chapman biting off more than he could chew. Every aspect of the plot is a worthy intriguing topic but when they all collide in a mere two-hour period it’s a challenge to give any of the components the attention and depth they really deserve.
Tragedy strikes the Marshall University community when a plane crash claims the lives of most of the football team coaches and some fans. With the whole town traumatized university president Donald Dedmond (David Strathairn) thinks it's best to cancel the football program but remaining players led by Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie) rally the school to support continuing the team's honor. Of course nobody wants to coach in these circumstances--that is until rogue bad boy Jake Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) asks for the job. Along with surviving assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox) they build the team back up. Just putting the team back together raises the town's spirits but getting back the winning record is another story. This could have easily been a sappy tearjerker but it sticks to the high road for the most part. There are some sad scenes (i.e. the cheerleader [Kate Mara] returning the engagement ring her dead boyfriend gave her to his mourning daddy) but otherwise the focus is on moving ahead. Just about every actor gets at least one big moment to cry. That's a given in a story of this nature and some of them are better than others. Mackie's stoic attempt to take punches in an injured shoulder is full of passion but Fox's random breakdown is well just like a flashback from Lost. He is better on the field showing us a side to his personality we haven’t seen yet. Strathairn seems the most sympathetic as the pained authority figure making tough decisions. Mara (Brokeback Mountain) looks so innocent you just want to hold her hand and stroke her hair every time she wells up. Aside from that there's also a lot of personality in the film. McConaughey leads the team with a gleam in his eye and a smirk on his lips but it never comes across as insensitive. He’s hip so of course he's the one who can lead them out of tragedy. And as an ensemble film the cast comes together as a community in which a single tragedy can affect them all and a single victory can give them hope. McG totally restrains his bombastic Charlie's Angels style of filmmaking for this character piece. Just about the only noticeably fancy shot is a dissolve from Mara looking up at the plane to her boyfriend staring out the airplane window. It's a moving moment because we know what is coming and it does not call too much attention to the filmmaking process. McG knows how to do some great montages too. Recruiting the new players running the drills--they're all full of visual moments set to a rocking soundtrack. Most importantly he handles the tragedy with class and doesn’t deliberately try to jerk tears. The plane crashes with only a single jump and a fade to black but the wreckage burns through our hearts. Instead McG shows there's a way to honor the dead to take back a community's pride and let life go on without disrespecting any of the departed. The football games in We Are Marshall are filmed with visceral impacts pretty much the way most sports movies are. There's no Friday Night Lights grit but that's fine. These games are about telling a story not exposing the seedy underbelly of the sport.
Helen McCarter (Kimberly Elise) thought she had the perfect life with lawyer husband Charles (Steve Harris): a big house lots of creature comforts and a stable--albeit staid--marriage. But Helen's world shatters when Charles tells her on the eve of their 18th wedding anniversary that he wants a divorce and literally kicks her out of their spacious mansion to make room for another woman. Devastated she runs to her beloved pot-smokin' gun-totin' grandmother Madea (Tyler Perry) who lets Helen know she's a proud beautiful black woman who nonetheless should whoop the bastard's ass. As hurt as she is Helen really just wants to pick up the pieces and move on if she can. She finds guidance and empowerment from her family and friends including new friend Orlando (Shemar Moore) a drop-dead gorgeous construction worker whose sweet and sincere ways more than help Helen get through her pain. And he cooks too. Really there's no contest.
The main cast members aptly portray their roles formulaic as they are. Kimberly Elise (The Manchurian Candidate) as the grievously wronged wife has the toughest job trying to convey all the crazy mixed-up feelings Helen has for the ex-husband while trying to jumpstart her life. Steve Harris (TV's The Practice) as the callous husband and Shemar Moore (TV's The Young and the Restless) as the too-good-to-be-true suitor represent the two opposites sides of the coin. Even Cicely Tyson makes an appearance as Helen's invalid mother who seems just a little too healthy to be in a nursing home. But it's Tyler Perry who turns out to be the true mad black woman. The film comes alive when he's onscreen either playing the outrageous Madea--complete with wig makeup and padding--or Madea's brother Joe a lecherous old coot. Perry even gets to play it straight as Helen's kindly cousin Brian who has a junkie for a wife (played by Tamara Taylor with the usual vacant twitchy neediness). It would have been a long hour and a half without him.
Perry obviously writes from the heart having struggled through his younger years to become a well-known playwright. And with music video director Darren R. Grant at the helm Diary of a Mad Black Woman has all the best intentions. It's certainly a buoyant portrait of African-American life and culture that also speaks to anyone who has had to grapple with betrayal and hurt at the hands of those they love. But the stage-trained Perry somehow misses the subtleties of writing for film. Diary doesn't know what kind of genre it wants to be jumping from raucous comedy á la Big Momma's House to mind-numbing drama á la Waiting to Exhale. The characters don't have any complexities and are drawn very black or white. It also takes an awfully long time for our heroine to figure out what direction she's going to take when we could tell her in the first 30 minutes as to whom she should end up with. In the meantime we must endure several melodramatic set pieces filled with elaborate speeches about revenge love relationships redemption religion and all that which are meant to hit us hard with their poignancy. Perry might consider keeping the highfalutin writing for the stage and think about an acting career in film.