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

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

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.