Here’s a formula for Oscar success: Mix tragic death with heroin addiction, stir in interracial romance, domestic abuse, suburban angst, and Academy Award winners Benicio Del Toro and Halle Berry, and garnish with two precocious fatherless tots who should be modeling Benetton sweaters. Now coat it in cheese and serve it half-baked. That’s Susanne Bier’s ludicrous-to-the-point-of-hilarity melodrama which traffics in clichés and unintended giggles.
Berry plays wealthy widow Audrey Burke, whose saintly husband Steven (David Duchovny) was senselessly murdered on a trip to Cold Stone Creamery when he tried to protect a battered woman from her boyfriend. The only friction in the Burke’s perfect marriage was Steven’s continuing friendship with his childhood pal Jerry (Del Toro), a former lawyer who rode the narcotics slide down from classy coke to skid row smack. Jerry’s now so poor he chain-smokes his cigarettes down until they singe his fingers. He shows up at the funeral in a bad suit and when he tries to reach out to Audrey, she snaps coldly that she’s always hated him but then mysteriously insists that he stay for dinner. Del Toro’s sunken eyes and harshly sagged cheeks look as though he’s been sculpted roughly from putty; he’s put on every wrinkle the preternaturally smooth Berry’s refused to allow. (One Big Emotional Scene deflates into sniggers when Jerry attempts to reassure Audrey that she’s still beautiful to which she sighs with languid irritation, “No, I mean on the inside.”)
The premise is Audrey’s attempt to channel her dead husband’s generous spirit. He bought Jerry groceries; she asks Jerry to move into their garage. As Jerry kicked his needle habit after the funeral with less fuss than giving up meat for Lent, he takes on a surrogate father role to her kids Harper and Dory (Alexis Llewellyn and Micah Berry, no relation). But Audrey—the most unlikable widow since Leona Helmsley—can’t allow happiness. In every quiet moment of suburban calm, she does something unspeakably cruel or idiotic, ranging from telling Jerry that he’s the one who should have died, to spying on him in the shower and begging him like a hoodrat to let her “escape” with heroin. When she can’t sleep, she orders Jerry into her bed to be a human pillow, only the scene’s poignancy is weakened by her comically precise orders—arm here, leg here, pulling on the earlobe just so.
Bier and writer Allan Loeb are oblivious to Audrey’s petulant narcissism (plus Halle’s fembot lack of empathy) and laud her character as a model of strength even when she forces Jerry back out on streets where he promptly reaches for another needle. This isn’t an attempt to dimensionalize Audrey as a regretful and resentful woman whose grief is controlling. It’s a chance for Tel Doro to go for the Oscar gold in his Big Withdrawal Scene where he writhes on the floor, showers in his clothing, and shovels Snickers in his mouth. (A few message board posts do confirm that chocolate helps the recovery process. They also recommend cocaine.) When a drained Tel Doro finally emerges from his lair, he’s hit on the head with a soccer ball—oddly, Bier and Loeb sometimes forget that this Really Serious Movie isn’t a romantic comedy or vehicle for Tim Allen.
Luckily for us (though disastrous to the movie’s tone), John Carroll Lynch as Audrey’s henpecked neighbor keeps popping by to lighten us the misery with jokes about his evil wife. Of their chintz sofas, he groans, “Delores got her decorating tips from Uday Hussein,” and grins irresistibly as he slings his feet on their marble coffee table. I’d much rather watch a movie about the comic loneliness that binds him to his marriage, but instead we’re stuck with Halle’s irritable ennui and Benicio’s mossy-toothed scenery chewing that drags on and on through its scheduled blowups and symbolic dreams and interminable tears until we all feel like we’ve learned a little something about loss: We want our two hours back.