Movies do many things poorly, but a couple of movies now in theaters help remind us that they also have the potential to do a few things well.
The first, In the Bedroom, is a quietly made film that's receiving a lot of public attention, primarily thanks to its appearance on countless critics' 10 best lists and several awards show nominations. (Caution: In the Bedroom is rated R for violence and bad language; it also includes frank discussion of an implied adulterous relationship.)
The movie's barebones plot easily could be mistaken for something found among the lurid melodramas of the Lifetime cable network, but the film's tone and interest in plumbing its own moral depths set it apart.
Dr. Matt Fowler and his wife Ruth (beautifully acted by Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek) live in a rural coastal village in Maine. Their 19-year-old son, Frank, is contemplating the rest of his life. An interest in architecture drives him to consider following his father's footsteps to an Ivy League education, but his summer job on a lobster boat, the trade of his ancestors, holds a simple appeal.
Complicating matters is Frank's relationship with an older woman (Marisa Tomei) who has two small kids. She and her husband are estranged, but not yet legally divorced. Frank gives mixed signals about his willingness to think seriously about the relationship.
Frank's father and mother have different reactions to the situation, the former weakly approving, the latter disapproving and even scared-but neither does much about it. The tone of the film shifts dramatically when a tragedy occurs, and each character must face the consequences of his or her actions-or lack of them.
Part of In the Bedroom's strength lies in its director's self-control. First time feature film director Todd Field's story has all the elements of a thriller, but he consistently takes the characters right to the edge of that genre, then pulls back to remind us that he's far more interested in what's going on in their heads and hearts than any surprising plot development.
The film is based on a short story by Andre Dubus, reportedly a devout Roman Catholic. This story, originally called Killings, deals with themes common in Dubus's writing: marital strife, the ramifications of adultery, guilt, and forgiveness.
It's on these themes that the movie shows how films can do some things well. Although the full message of the gospel is nowhere in In the Bedroom, the utter despair of lives without faith, and the consequences of sin-in this case, not simply an adulterous relationship, but also weak-willed parents and bitter, unforgiving hearts-are clearly evident. Not the full story, but at least a good place to begin.
In sharp contrast to the complexity and weight of In the Bedroom is Meg Ryan's latest romantic comedy, Kate & Leopold (rated PG-13 for brief bad language). This light tale of a time-traveling duke also shows what movies can do well. If a film can recognize the consequences of sin (at least in human terms), then it can also recognize true virtue, and Kate & Leopold does so.
The movie was marketed as a screwball fish-out-of-water comedy, in which a 19th-century duke (played by Hugh Jackman) encounters all of the complexities of modern-day New York City, and it may have lost some of its potential audience as a result. Thankfully, director and co-writer James Mangold isn't very interested in exposing Duke Leopold to rap music or Britney Spears.
Instead, the character of Leopold serves as a contrast to a modern society bent on compromise and moral indifference. Leopold is a man of honor and integrity, and his commitment to virtue is, surprisingly, not portrayed as an irrelevant artifact from a bygone age.
Mr. Jackman plays a romantic lead worthy of Jane Austen, smoothly delivering wonderful lines of dialogue. When speaking of his uncle's expectation that he marry for money, Leopold exclaims, "Marriage is a promise of eternal love. As a man of honor I cannot promise eternally what I have never felt momentarily." Later, after he has acclimated himself to the 21st century, he sadly tells Kate, "You have every convenience, every comfort, yet no time for integrity."
The plot doesn't deal with the inconsistencies of time travel; nor is there much depth to Ms. Ryan's romantic heroine. But, at least in this case, she falls for a prince worthy of devotion.