In a Lonely Place

Soderberghs Traffic, plus Cast Away and The House of Mirth

There's almost nothing I can tell you about the plot of Cast Awaythat you haven't already seen in the tell-all trailer: Type-A FedEx honcho gets stranded on television desert island, does his Robinson Crusoe thing, ponders meaning of existence, lives to tell tale to the nice blonde he left behind. That preview and the alarming posters at your local bus shelter of Tom Hanks looking like the geezer who rose panting from the waves to usher in each episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus seemed to promise two hours of furtive giggling in the aisles. That I stayed to pray is testimony to the movie's likability rather than to its reach for existential profundity.

We first meet chubby, frantic Chuck Noland in Moscow as he barks time-management orders at a cowed-looking bunch of Russians. When last we see him, slimmed-down and freshly shaven, he's a chastened yet hopeful man at a crossroads, transformed by four years of eating crab, with nothing but a soccer ball for company. The sole survivor of a plane crash that brings out the technical best in director Robert Zemeckis, Chuck is washed up on a Pacific Island with little to commend it but the coconuts. There follows a brave directorial move—almost an hour of thunderous silence as we watch Chuck figuring out how to stay physically alive. That's the easy part. If trying to hold on to his sense of time is hard for a man whose unexamined life has been ruled by the clock, examining that life is pure agony. The very scenes you expect to be unspeakably mawkish—the relationship Chuck forms with Wilson, a soccer ball he's taken from a parcel that washed up with him and on which he paints a face with his own blood—are handled with a delicacy that makes them almost unbearably moving. But screenwriter William Broyles Jr. can't resist excursions into levity. Once Chuck starts talking to the ball, the jokes start flowing, draining the movie of what Zemeckis most longs to offer us: an inner life. Which obliges Hanks to deliver a long speech near the end of the movie, summarizing what was going on in his savage breast on the island.

As the love of Chuck's life, Helen Hunt is being Helen Hunt, a reliable supporting player who, Pay It Forwardnotwithstanding, has yet to prove she can shine in limelight. Hanks, too, is solid and inspiring in the way he always is when no one's asking him to do better. Solid and inspiring will do nicely for Christmas—and wonders for FedEx, whose packages have cameos in every other scene—but it ought not to be good enough for the Oscar nominations that will almost certainly rain upon this movie's adequate head.

Nothing takes the stuffing out of a literary adaptation quite as efficiently as an excess of respect for the author. And no author seems to have inspired more reverence than Edith Wharton, who specialized in lives stifled by propriety and really nice silverware. Scorsese's The Age of Innocenceand John Madden's Ethan Fromefelt embalmed in period accuracy, so it comes as a nice surprise that a director like Terence Davies, himself no stranger to the cinematic still life, has the vision and the guts to lift Wharton's The House of Mirthout of the funeral parlor of costume drama and into opera. Not the shrieky, all-stops-out kind, but a slow burn of cumulative pain ending in a private tragedy that's also an indictment of a social system.

Though it was shot in Scotland, The House of Mirthdoes sumptuous justice to the brocaded decorum of belle époque New York. Still, Davies is no slave to décor. The movie has a marvelous, pent-up passion: Davies has caught in a bottle the quietly feverish tone of Wharton's bleak tale of a woman brought to ruin by lack of social capital. With her red hair piled extravagantly atop her lovely head, Gillian Anderson makes a magnificent Lily Bart, a glittering yet impoverished young socialite who, like any Hollywood ingénue today, imagines that the charm and beauty that draw men to her will also make them stay. Lily is at once a casualty of an old, neo-British society of manners, whose thin veneer of hushed politesse overlays a vipers' nest peopled with conniving opportunists, and of a brash new world in which emotional life is conducted on business principles. Laura Linney is deliciously insidious as the steely young matron who sets Lily up for her first major fall; Anthony LaPaglia excels as a businessman who makes Lily understand —the hard way—that she may have bought into the game, but she doesn't understand the rules; and Eric Stoltz does his usual languid turn, which makes him perfect for the one true love who fails Lily when the chips are down.

The House of Mirthis a feast of elegiac images: Davies wrings melancholy from sheets of rain falling on water, or a house full of shrouded furniture, or the taking of afternoon tea. As the movie swells into tragedy (not for nothing is the score peppered with bits from Così fan Tutte), Lily, compromised by the malice of others and by the internal struggle between her moral scruples and her corruptibility, grows paler and more fragile—she's radiant with despair. "Ah, Lily," sighs a friend more worldly than she, "the world is vile." And no one does vile more gorgeously than Terence Davies.

TRAFFIC is now playing at selected theaters; CAST AWAY is now playing countywide; THE HOUSE OF MIRTH is now Playing Edwards Town Center, Costa Mesa.

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