Death, Drugs and Halle Berry: Must be Hollywood

    Ah, award season: when studio machines, faced with smart
    filmmakers, pump out half-baked character dramas, shooting to wrap their teeth
    around the great, greasy, phallic member that is Oscar — praying that if they
    blow hard enough, they’ll get a big cash payoff. It’s artistic prostitution at
    its worst, made all the more embarrassing when catching legitimate talent in
    the crossfire. It happened two years ago with white-flight blowhard “Crash,”
    this decade’s biggest money-shot filth flick; it happened in 2002 with
    “Chicago,” an ego parade as painful as pulling fingernails. “Things We Lost in
    the Fire” ends up as this year’s entry, with potentially successful amounts of
    talent and emotional setup, but ultimately whittled down to a skeletal
    melodrama by studio executives in the race to add an aviary to their Xanadu
    summer yacht.

    UCSD alum Benicio Del Toro plays Jerry, a heroin junkie
    living in a blighted Seattle neighborhood.
    He quits and relapses like a revolving door, opting to spend his free
    time lying on a flophouse mattress, stoned or drunk, with the Velvet
    Underground on full blast. When he gets the sudden news from Audrey (Halle
    Berry) that Brian — his best friend and her husband ­­— has been murdered, he
    hits a new low. We see Brian only in flashbacks, played with quick wit and
    humanity by David Duchovny, as he stands by Jerry when there’s no other friend
    in the world.

    For the two-hour duration, we want to follow their
    camaraderie; instead, we get a photocopy of the Hollywood
    moving-on-with-your-life rulebook. Audrey offers Jerry a room at her house (and
    subsequent sexual tension), where everyone sees him as the surrogate
    daddy-husband-friend. If Audrey needs to fix something, Jerry’s got it. If the
    neighbor needs a new running partner, out-of-shape Jerry fits the bill. And while Papa Mulder couldn’t even get his
    5-year-old son to dunk his head underwater, Unkie Benicio will get the job
    done.

    So that the sunny disposition doesn’t escape stormy
    melodrama; Audrey constantly chastizes Jerry for “stealing” Brian’s moments,
    Jerry relapses and of course there’s that dinner moment in which everyone
    ponders their own selfish grief. (Cue
    the epiphany montage set to “Solsbury Hill.”) It’s not unreal, it’s Hollywood
    real!

    Which is a shame, since Del Toro finds the perfect pitch for
    rattled addict Jerry, his glazed eyes still reeling from constant drug abuse.
    And despite some ludicrous dialogue, Duchovny transforms a potentially smug,
    rich asshole into a man of genuine virtue.
    Berry similarly does what she can with a woman whose short, neurotic
    temper leaps logic even for a wailing widow (of ever-varying decibels). Each
    scene leapfrogs from well-crafted drama to ham-and-cheese ensemble, as director
    Susanne Bier employs every visual metaphor under the sun for maximum audience
    impact. When are we going to stop being marauded with the shaky, handheld
    camera indicating fragility, which Bier milks to the last frame? Obviously,
    this is deep stuff.

    There are currently two films in theaters about posthumous
    grief — this little romp and “The Darjeeling Limited.” Though they belong to
    different genres, “Darjeeling”’s exploration of coping with death is far
    superior; there’s real connection between people, rather than each character
    acting on personal volition. The narcissistic latter is the brainchild of
    Hollywood madmen who allow for mediocrity like “Things We Lost in the Fire” to
    pass initial lines of artistic defense, such as script-readers. Their trick:
    craft a well-tested plot around Oscar’s venerable checklist of stylistic requirements,
    make you think you love it and pickpocket your $10 in the meantime.

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