In this film based on the Newbery Award-winning children's book by Kate DiCamillo Opal (AnnaSophia Robb) is a lonely 10-year-old girl who has moved to a sluggish small town in Florida with her preacher father (Jeff Daniels). She has a tough time getting through to her dad: when he is not preaching the gospel he walks around in a haze haunted by the departure of Opal's mother many years before. But when Opal adopts Winn-Dixie named after the supermarket where she found the mutt things start to brighten up for the little girl. With her special companion by her side Opal ends up meeting some pretty interesting people in the town. They include Miss Franny (Eva Marie Saint) the local spinster librarian who spins great stories; Otis (Dave Matthews) the shy drifter working at Gertrude's Pet Shop; and Gloria (Cicely Tyson) an old blind lady living with ghosts from her past. Through Opal's sunny disposition and Winn-Dixie doggone tenaciousness they help the town find their joy and their sorrow. And at the same time they mend Opal's troubled relationship with her father. Collectively now awwww!
All the players fit snugly in this warmhearted movie especially the talented young Robb who makes her feature film debut in Winn-Dixie. It's imperative to cast an adorable child and Robb doesn't disappoint keeping things genuinely fresh with the big eyes infectious smile and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm charm. Daniels too doesn't overplay it as the wounded preacher--aptly described by Opal as a turtle--who rarely sticks his head out of his shell. Veterans Eva Marie Saint and Cicely Tyson do what they can with their stereotypical parts as the kindly spinster storyteller and kindly old wise woman respectively. But it's singer-turned-actor Dave Matthews who stands out as the drifter with a troubled past but can "sing most anything " even charming the animals in the pet shop á la the Pied Piper. His poignant performance is up there in the sentiment department.
Here we go with the children and the animals again. Wayne Wang (Maid in Manhattan The Joy Luck Club) is the latest director to take a stab at guiding those most unpredictable of actors. As he explains "Sometimes the going is slow. But then suddenly something magical happens that you couldn't possibly have planned or anticipated." It's true. There are definite moments of inspired sweetness especially between Opal and Winn-Dixie played by a Picardy Shepherd a rare breed of dog from France that has the look of a big old lovable mutt. And of course you can't go too wrong using heart-tugging material based on a beloved children's novel on par with Where the Red Fern Grows and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. That's also Because of Winn-Dixie main problem. Fans of the book will certainly love the film but overall it doesn't really offer anything new in this genre. It's the same general premise about the kid and a dog--or a horse a deer whichever animal works best--who can change the lives of those around them just from being pure of heart. Maybe it's the curmudgeon in me but Winn-Dixie just doesn't stand out among the plethora of films similar to it.
With four days left before his execution notoriously reticent death row inmate David Gale (Kevin Spacey) decides at last to share his story with the press. He chooses as his vessel reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) who's just spent a week in the slammer for refusing to reveal her sources on a kiddie porn cover story. As Gale's story unfolds (and we see it in flashback) Bitsey becomes convinced he's innocent and she and her intern Zack (Gabriel Mann) begin a race against the clock to discover the truth that will save him. Sound like an overblown blurb from a movie studio's press files? Apologies for that but the best way to talk about this story's climactic points is to resort to hyperbolic clichés of this ilk--the movie's key moments are without exception melodramatic and overblown. Nonetheless most of the movie is suspenseful the story has several interesting (I wouldn't go so far as compelling) twists and there are plenty of reasons to root for Gale's cause especially if like him and admittedly like me you're a political liberal who fancies yourself at least somewhat intellectual.
If there's one thing that defines Kevin Spacey's acting style it's his unparalleled ability to discourse at length on philosophical minutiae a gift that undoubtedly contributed to his getting this role in the first place. But Spacey gets to stretch a bit more playing Gale--the professorial character in his pre-death row life was a loose cannon even by academia's standards: he partied with his students talked about fantasy and desire in class and belonged to Death Watch a liberal advocacy group opposed to the death penalty. Beyond that his personal life was a disaster. His wife was having an affair with a Spaniard Gale was a borderline alcoholic and his ego was the size of a generously proportioned watermelon. So there are plenty of challenges for Spacey in the part--both in the flashbacks and the death row sequences--and he obviously embraces them all; unfortunately sometimes he squeezes the life out of them in the process foregoing for example the tragic nuances of real alcoholism for the stumbling sobriquets of an overblown town-drunk philosopher. The equally gifted Laura Linney as Constance--Gale's stalwart friend fellow professor co-director of Death Watch and alleged murder victim--finds herself in less familiar territory. Her character is complex yet remarkably one-dimensional for most of the movie which leaves the talented actress turning--albeit reluctantly--to melodrama for support. Winslet too is on unfamiliar ground with an American accent (quite well done old chap-ette) a mission and a bitchiness that's too little seen from this pristine young girl.
It's truly unfortunate that director Alan Parker didn't keep a tighter handle on The Life of David Gale's more dramatic moments since had they come off better this would have been a more even and generally more watchable film. As it is each of the talented lead actors has a scene in which they really let loose on the hysterical wailing waterworks--Winslet lucky gal has two. They may not be bad enough to make you cringe necessarily but they're obviously overplayed. The film would have benefited from a wail-o-meter that would have allowed the bawling to go so far and only so far. All that aside though this film is ultimately less melodramatic than its equivalent TV movie version would have (and probably has) been--and that leads me to my final point. The Life of David Gale is about what TV pundits would call a hot-button issue and while the public is intelligent enough not to be emotionally swayed by the hue and cry of activists on either side of the argument we can--and by God we will--be entertained by it. So I just want to say thank you Hollywood for once again one-upping the 6 o'clock news and for showing that even discussions of the most important issues of our time can be squeezed into a two-hour movie and manipulated in the interests of suspense and drama.