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The Hours
Paramount / Miramax

The success of The Hours is a classic case of hype and marketing over substance. The movie is so self-congratulatory in its pretense of intellectual gravity and literary credibility that it's overwhelming. I truly believe most critics are terrified to admit that the movie just isn't very good, lest they seem uncultured. Not that The Hours is bad, because it isn't. But it certainly doesn't deserve the kind of acclaim its been getting, including nabbing the Golden Globe for Best Picture. Over The Pianist? The Two Towers? Adaptation? That's a joke.

The Hours is based on Michael Cunningham's 1998 novel, and follows three storylines in as many time periods. Meryl Streep plays Clarissa, a modern-day woman living in NYC with her long time girlfriend. Claire Danes plays her (test-tube conceived) daughter. Clarissa's best friend is Richard (Ed Harris), a writer, who has just won a prestigious literary award for his novel. Richard is dying of AIDS, and Clarissa has appointed herself his caretaker.

Julianne Moore plays Laura Brown, a suburban housewife in the early 1950's. Her husband (John C. Reilly), is a dutiful and simple man. They have a young son, and a baby on the way. Laura is reading Virginia Woolf's book Mrs. Dalloway.

Kidman portrays the writer Virginia Woolf in two periods -- 1925, and 1941, when she commits suicide by drowning. She lives with her husband Leonard (Stephen Dillane), who runs a printing press from their home. Most of the story involving Woolf covers the period in her life that she wrote Mrs. Dalloway and also delves into her battles with madness and depression.

Why the movie is good:

It's interesting and holds your attention throughout. It has some good ideas. A lot of the writing is decent. Large chunks of the script are lifted from two acclaimed books, so the source material redeems the writing that is weak.

Why it's bad:

The acting. Much of it is lacking. The direction is supremely awkward and by extension, so are the actors. Characters in the movie who have supposedly known each other for years act as if it's the first time they've ever been in a room together. Especially Moore and Reilly's characters, who are supposed to be married. The innuendo of sexual repression aside, it is not possible for two people who are married, have raised a son together, and live in the same household, to have such acute unfamiliarity between them. Reilly's character is daft, forced, and in denial, and I didn't believe him for a minute.

Jack Rovello, as Moore's son, is just bad. The boy can't act. There are excruciating and emotionally leading shots of him every few minutes, close-ups of his big bewildered eyes. The director rides on this device of the cute kid inducing easy sentimentality so often that he becomes a prop. They even stoop to the old tearjerker standby - shots of him screaming "Mommy! Mommy!" as someone holds him back.

Even Kidman and Dillane's characters seem like they just met each other yesterday, no matter how hard Dillaine tries to make us believe he is deeply in love with Woolf.

Credibility. Few of the cast could make me forget they were acting, that their characters were truly living the experience and not following a script. There was little window into internal emotion, motivation, understanding, aside from Harris and Streep. Streep is not a favorite of mine, but at least I could swallow her character. Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman give us nothing from their performances. They both rely far too heavily on the no-acting-is-good-acting bit. Kidman sits behind her fake nose in a stupor of "depression" and "genius creation", barely reacting to the real world. When she does react, it's severely delayed. Comatose stupor interspersed with blank distraction to me does not read depressed. It reads Kidman's acting abilities are not complex enough to handle this role.

The pretense is that Woolf doesn't react normally to the world because she is mentally ill and because she is living in her head, in this vivid world of her characters inside her imagination. But we never see it. All we get is Kidman sitting blankly in a chair with writing tools and halting voiceovers of her thoughts, read with this grating smugness that all actors recite literature with nowadays. The only scene where her character really comes alive is when she has an argument with her husband. Unfortunately, Kidman then makes the mistake of jumping to the other extreme - supreme dramatics, meaningful declarations, delivered with the utmost angst to the soundtrack swelling in the background.

And aah yes, The Score. Although Philip Glass' music is beautiful, it is used badly. It comes off so loud, and so leading, they might as well have had the ushers in the theatre hold up cue cards. "This part is dramatic and you are floored by the intensity." "This part is sad, very very sad. You will shed tears of pathos for these characters."

The Hours is, ultimately, a movie with no impact. It's an entertaining movie that tends to deliver inarticulate, awkward scenes, and, if rented, could nicely kill a few hours of your time on a weekend. It says nothing important, gives no lasting insight, and the acting and direction are, at times, dismal. It should not, by any means, be winning the kind of acclaim it has received. But hey, that's Hollywood.

  -- Margo Tiffen


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