Partly Sunny 

*Sunshine State (PG-13)
Sony Pictures Classics

Pluck any tofu eater from the aisles of Wild Oats and ask them who their favorite director is. I'll wager a pound of organic bean sprouts that the name John Sayles comes up pretty quick.

People go gaga over this indie maverick, and for good reason. He's one of a handful of directors with the gall to put recognizable human beings on screen, feature complex interracial casts, and exploit a gold mine of subject matter routinely ignored by Hollywood and its "independent" farm league.

Span the settings of his recent films and you might conclude that he is being underwritten by the Frommer's Guide: From Limbo's Alaska to the Tex-Mex border of Lone Star, Sayles is interested in America -- all of it. In Sunshine State he goes south to Florida's fictitious Plantation Island where two adjacent communities, one white, one black, brace themselves for a tsunami of real-estate development.

Like most of Sayles' films, Sunshine is a perambulating ensemble piece, preoccupied with the clash of history and individual lives. One's instinct is to cheer him on simply for tackling a subject like sprawl. But social content alone doesn't keep this film afloat, nor does it justify its two-and-a-half hour duration. What keeps it from spinning into a Florida hurricane, however, are the shining performances of Angela Bassett and Sopranos star Edie Falco.

If the Oscars were actually merit-based, Falco would be in the running for her portrayal of Marly Temple, a straight shooter with a wit sharpened by a life chained down to her father's waning enterprise, the Sea-Vue motel and restaurant. Her unwitting fling with landscape architect Jack Meadows (Timothy Hutton) is the wisest of a romantic career that includes a failed marriage and a doomed affair. Like many of Sunshine's cast, Marly dreamd of better things, but lives in the wake of their passing. A sense of duty keeps her by the side of her father, a delightful Archie Bunker of the South played by Ralph Waite, but her loyalty is tested by a squadron of oleaginous developers ravenous to buy her out

While Marly has taken a rambling path to self-discovery, Desiree Perry (Angela Bassett) confronts it like a 12-step mandate. Home for the first time in 20 years and armed with a strapping anesthesiologist husband (James McDaniel), she attempts to bury the hatchet with her pungent patrician mother, played by Mary Alice. Theirs is no ordinary mother-daughter conflagration, but a wound inflicted by the demands of a self-conscious class of African-American elites who quietly prospered in the Jim Crow South.

Ensemble pieces are double-edged swords; they facilitate a thorough excavation of issues and ideas, while demanding an audience to care about as many characters and sub-plots. Too often Sunshine clouds over with ill-defined minor characters who are good for little more than a fleeting joke. The film's real-estate goons, for example, are so laughably simplistic they might as well be accompanied by a villain's theme.

A so-so Sayles effort may outshine Hollywood's weekly abominations and delight the tofu eaters, but letting him off the hook is little more than a recipe for mediocrity.

-- John Dicker


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