Thursday, May 20, 2010

Film Review: "Main Street"

“Main Street”
A film review by Jordan Overstreet

Director: John Doyle
Producer(s): Myriad Pictures
Screenplay: Horton Foote; based on the book, Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis
Main players: Orlando Bloom, Ellen Burstyn, Patricia Clarkson, Colin Firth, and Amber Tamblyn

John Doyle’s Main Street, starring Colin Firth, Ellen Burstyn, Orlando Bloom, Patricia Clarkson, and Amber Tamblyn, premiered last Thursday at the 63rd annual Festival de Cannes. Based on Sinclair Lewis’ novel of the same name, Main Street is a posthumous work from the late Horton Foote, who penned the screenplay after a weekend visit to Durham several years earlier, during which he found downtown to be completely empty. Foote, who is best known for To Kill a Mockingbird, Tender Mercies, A Trip to Bountiful, Orphans’ Home Cycle, The Young Man from Atlanta, and most recently Dividing the Estate, is very much in his element. The film, which marks Doyle’s first major motion picture venture, follows the intersecting lives of various members of the dying Durham community in upstate North Carolina. While home to the prestigious Duke University, a popular destination for many affluent Americans seeking higher education, Durham, as the film suggests, has not prospered in the influx of the nouveau riche; and this once vibrant empire of the North Carolina tobacco industry, has, like many small towns across the South, withered away. Thus, when Gus Leroy (Firth), rolls into town with his big plans to revive Durham, his arrival provides the catalyst for the film. While his plan for rebirth is just the medicine to heal the dying economy, it comes at a price, leaving many residents to question whether Leroy’s presence is merely an accident or divine intervention.

We first meet Georgiana Carr, the aging daughter of a tobacco millionaire, as she recants Durham’s “Golden Age” (that began as a result of Reconstruction and carried on through the 1940’s) to a prospective realtor. Through a low, wide-angle shot, Doyle captures Georgiana sitting on the porch of her spacious white estate, which is reminiscent of a modern-day version of Blanche Dubois’ Belle Rive, in downtown Durham. Like the wrinkled Georgiana, the house too shows signs of aging--chipped paint, cobwebs, etc--and as Doyle pulls away to reveal a small compact car made in the 1990’s, Georgiana’s world is seen as outmoded and she herself becomes a tangible symbol of decay. Ms. Burstyn, last seen as “Miss Addie” in Tennessee Williams’ The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, appears to be on a ‘wilting Southern heroine’ kick, in which she, sans make-up, portrays women on the brink of death. Much of her time was devoted to hurrying about her home in a fit of tears fueled by her fear of the outside world, but the blame for this lies on Doyle’s direction, not Ms. Burstyn. Georgiana’s motive throughout the film seems to be her desire not to fear her impending death, and Ms. Burstyn translates this well. Georgiana’s fear of dying is further bolstered by the arrival of Leroy.

Suspicious of an intruder lurking outside, Georgiana calls her niece, Willa (Clarkson) to the scene, and on her drive over, it is Willa who witnesses Leroy’s two Hispanic workers smoking outside of Georgiana’s downtown warehouse, once used for the storage of tobacco. A member an earlier generation of Durham youth who had left town to go on to bigger things, Willa has returned home following her divorce. Willa is a headstrong, forty something divorcee, who’s concern for Georgiana’s well being is a top priority. Ms. Clarkson far outshines her co-stars in this film. Her chemistry with Ms. Burstyn is top notch and the two play off of each other well. As Willa becomes Georgiana’s protectorate, the audience is introduced to Leroy’s line of business--hazardous waste management.

Entering town in the middle of the night (poor choice by Doyle seeing as a daylight appearance would have been a stronger choice dramatically speaking), are a fleet a white trucks carrying canisters of hazardous waste material (a phrase that becomes far over used throughout the film). Entering Georgiana’s warehouse in an electric blue button down and black suede cowboy boots is Gus Leroy. Mr. Firth, whose last motion picture appearance as the suicidal homosexual in Tom Ford’s A Single Man, attempts to prove yet again that he too possesses a chamelon-esque quality like that of Meryl Streep. Unfortunately, Mr. Firth cannot play a Texan. His slow drawl is forced and his chemistry with his leading lady is not up to par (there’s a first time for everything). Ms. Clarkson ultimately saves the day by bridging the age gap between Mr. Firth and herself. Nevertheless, the triangle of Georgiana, Willa, and Leroy remains the most compelling aspect of the film.

In Foote’s “B” plot line, he explores the newest generation to enter the Durham workforce through the characters of Harris Parker (Bloom), a police officer by day and a law-student by night, and Mary Saunders (Tamblyn), a sectary in a law firm who is dating her much older and very married boss. Harris remains in Durham to support his aging mother, while Mary appears to be stuck in her fear to move away from Harris, who is her high school sweetheart. Through this entrapment, Foote attempts to explain the loss of the Durham workforce--the kids are just moving away. However, Mr. Bloom and Miss Tamblyn find themselves, like their characters, trapped in Foote’s subplot. Foote has created an ensemble drama and has done a poor job of truly weaving his subplot into his main story. This beginners mistake is out of character for such a celebrated writer and would have been caught in another draft of the script, however, my guess is Foote’s health did not permit another re-working, leaving us stuck with this draft. Doyle does a noble effort attempting to cover-up any plot holes by trying to link these two stories together, however, his theatrical background in the West End fails to aid Doyle in being successful.

With such a well-rounded cast, a script from Horton Foote, and an acclaimed Broadway director on board, Main Street should have been a success, yet it is a total disappointment. The great climax of the film occurs when Leroy’s fleet of white trucks, carrying hazardous waste, are in an accident on the side of the highway. Expecting the worst, the audience is very much let down when we learn that the canisters did not, in fact, rupture. So many times throughout the film, Foote gives us reasons to not trust Leroy, but we end up seeing his as a Christ-like figure that has come to save Durham from death and escort Georgiana to her final resting place. Perhaps if Doyle or Foote had factored in the thoughts of the audience, a very different film would have been produced; one that would have held my attention. Despite this, Doyle is successful in his overall goal of suggesting that sometimes death is the only means for survival. I wonder if the death of Main Street at the box office will help it survive, Mr. Doyle?

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