The Bigger Chill

A film in which yuppies talk, and talk some more

Want to make a movie? Get a big house, preferably in a beautiful rural setting, gather a group of good-looking actors, and photograph them wandering around, discussing life and death. No, we're not talking about The Big Chill or Enchanted Aprilor Howard's End or a dozen other successful films that follow this formula. Unfortunately we're discussing The Weekend, another "country-house picture" that's long on picturesque beauty and high-minded chat but short -- very short -- on dramatic interest.

Like its predecessors, The Weekend seems informed by the works of the Russian playwright and short-story writer Anton Chekov, who wrote a series of plaintive, bittersweet masterpieces. His characters, erudite and self-aware, were the narcissists of his day (prerevolutionary Russia) and walked a slippery tightrope between hilarity and despair.

That's pretty much the intended mood of The Weekend, but this ain't Chekov, folks.

Bring on the neighbors: Gena Rowlands and Brooke Shields
Bring on the neighbors: Gena Rowlands and Brooke Shields

Directed by Brian Skeet from a novel by Peter Cameron, The Weekendrecounts a gathering of friends at the large, lovely home of thirtysomething couple John and Marian Kerr (Jared Harris and Deborah Kara Unger).The Kerrs have fled Manhattan and taken up residence permanently in their summer house, where they're content to raise their baby in a placid mountain setting. Up for the weekend comes Lyle (David Conrad), an owlish art critic, and his new flame, Robert, a young painter (James Duval).

Trouble is, it's the first anniversary of the death of Paul (D.B. Sweeney), Lyle's long-time lover and John's half-brother. Both Lyle and John are haunted by Paul's memory but not as much as Marian, who connected with Paul in such a profound way that her memory of him overwhelms her relationship with her husband. So consumed is Marian in her grief that she resents Robert's presence -- a palpable hostility he soon discovers. Meanwhile in a neighboring house Nina, a pouty movie star (Brooke Shields), visits her mother, Laura (Gena Rowlands). Nina seethes with resentment toward her mother and snipes at her constantly. When both are invited to the Kerrs for dinner, the stage is set for emotional fireworks.

But few are forthcoming. This is a movie of conversation and ideas, and though the characters talk a great deal about their feelings, the film shies away from showing many of them. Skeet seems satisfied with keeping these characters at arm's length. Several critical emotional moments are staged in long master shots; it's nearly impossible to see what is going on or what the characters are going through. One key scene, a fight in the forest between the gay lovers, is missing entirely. We are offered only the beginning of an argument and its aftermath. The net effect of this and most of the film is one of reticence, as if Skeet, like most of his characters, seems petrified of accepting or even acknowledging messy emotions.

This Weekend could use more mess. The film and its characters seem far too manicured and mannered. The artfully arranged scenes, a series of lofty dialogues set in a variety of pretty locales, are all played at the same lugubrious pace. The characters drift about in longing and loss -- it's like staring at an endless Calvin Klein perfume ad. The scenery is lush and seductive. The huge lawns are landscaped. The stately house is carefully decorated and obsessively neat. The Weekend is another faux story about rich yuppies with no visible means of support, no domestic help, and no economic worries distracting them from their true vocations: that of feeling sorry and sorrowful.

In Skeet's second feature, he and cinematographer Ron Fortunato certainly capture the mood, with delicate blues and greens in exterior scenes and a rich warm glow for the many interior shots. Paul's story -- his platonic romance with Marian, his confrontation with AIDS, and his impending death -- is told in black and white, or rather blue and white. The overall effect is painterly and plaintive, with a dreamy musical score from Dan Jones and Sarah Class. Editor Chris Wyatt attempts to inject some energy with sudden quick cutting in a few scenes, a startling device in what otherwise is a cautiously, even timidly, directed film.

All this could work if only there some were dramatic conflict or action, but The Weekend never manages more than incidental energy. Although the many brief flashbacks to Paul offer some charm and passion, it's never clear why none of his friend can get over his death a year later. These characters aren't trying to pull out of their grief; they are obsessing in it. As a result only Robert comes across as fresh and appealing. He's visiting the home of the living dead, and when he leaves abruptly, it's not hard to see why.

The cast makes do with what little they have, though Unger's Marian seems particularly one-note, all regret and despondency. She's lovely to look at, even in her grief, but grief it is, from start to finish. Sweeney's Paul is charming and lively, but he's confined to the flashback scenes, and we never learn enough about him. Duval's Robert is perhaps the most successful performance; at least he's given some conflict with which to work. Gena Rowlands, ever the pro, offers a welcome note of spontaneity. As has been her acting style since her early days working with her late husband and director, John Cassavetes, Rowlands plays Laura honestly, naturally, and moment to moment, a wise choice that Brooke Shields should take note to follow. Shields not only is burdened by playing most of her scenes across from the redoubtable Rowlands, but she has the lamentable habit of telegraphing the outcome: If she's in a fight scene, she's ready to fight before anything happens. If she's in a seduction scene, she's ready to seduce right from the start. She gives everything away before she opens her mouth.

Shields and her comrades aren't aided by Skeet's wordy, awkward adaptation of Peter Cameron's novel. All the characters sound alike. This might have worked in the book, but onscreen the effect is that of one voice spoken by many people. There's also a lot of arty phrasing. Unger must get her mouth around lines such as, "the smudging carbon copy of memory"(hence the blue-and-white flashbacks). At the end of the film, Shields delivers a real cornball: "Why is it that you always look the best in the peace and quiet that follows the violent storm?" But even if one can accept such groaners, the real issue is: What's violent? What storm?

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