The Shipping News

on December 25, 2001 by Wade Major
   Twice previously Miramax Films and director Lasse Hallstrom have gone to the literary well in an attempt to secure a Best Picture Oscar, and twice they have come up empty, winning only a pair of lesser categories for “The Cider House Rules” and striking out completely with “Chocolat.” The team's third attempt--an adaptation of E. Annie Proulx's Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Shipping News”--is anything but the proverbial charm. A sloppy, meandering morass of semi-realized ideas, half-baked characters and storylines that disappear before they come to a point, “The Shipping News” is a classic example of how not to adapt a novel. Unlike John Irving's Oscar-winning adaptation of his own “The Cider House Rules,” this one by Robert Nelson Jacobs, who also adapted “Chocolat,” attempts to cover far too much territory in too short a period of time, sacrificing substance for scope.

   Kevin Spacey stars as Quoyle, a native Newfoundlander who has long since abandoned the ways of his people for an aimless life of odd jobs and disconnectedness. His present job as an inker at a newspaper plant suits his loner, dimwit style perfectly--he gets to do as little as possible and get by on even less. That's until he winds up in the company of a trampy sexpot named Petal (Cate Blanchett) who, for reasons both unclear and illogical, beds him, gets pregnant by him, bears him a daughter and then hangs around for the next few years while the girl, Bunny (played by triplets Alyssa, Kaitlyn and Lauren Gainer), grows up in the most dysfunctional environment imaginable.

   As if this unfathomable course of events wasn't ridiculous enough, Hallstrom and Jacobs make certain that it transpires as rapidly as possible, whizzing by in mere minutes, scarcely allowing the audience the time to question why Petal and Quoyle would get together in the first place, much less raise a family, when suddenly Petal dies in a car wreck with one of her occasional boyfriends.

   And so begins Quoyle's odyssey of rediscovery as he and his daughter return to the small Newfoundland fishing village of his roots (primarily at the urging of his aunt Agnis Hamm, played by Judi Dench) where they attempt to build a new life in the decrepit old family homestead. Quoyle naturally seeks employment with the local newspaper and gets far more than he bargained for when he's made a reporter and sent to cover car wrecks. But an article on the history of a yacht presumably once owned by Hitler reveals hidden talents that surprise him as much as his superiors, suggesting that there may be a place in Newfoundland for a loner like Quoyle after all.

   Tagged onto this thinnest and most uninteresting of stories is a cumbersome love story with Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore), the single mother of a handicapped child; forced office conflict with a resentful editor (Pete Postlethwaite); and assorted subplots of comparable banality. The only time the film really seems to come alive is during the handful of revelatory flashbacks in which Quoyle finds out “the truth” about his forbears. Unfortunately, such revelations are epidemic in Newfoundland, with just about everyone harboring some kind of deep, dark secret from the past. Prowse has a sob story, Agnis has a sob story, the whole Quoyle family has a sob story. It's nothing, however, compared to the sob story of those who've had to sit through it all. Starring Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore, Judi Dench, Scott Glenn, Rhys Ifans, Pete Postelthwaite and Cate Blanchett. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Written by Robert Nelson Jacobs. Produced by Irwin Winkler, Linda Goldstein Knowlton and Leslie Holleran. A Miramax release. Drama. Rated R for some language, sexuality and disturbing images. Running time: 117 min

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