Monday, November 12, 2007

Things We Lost in the Fire

THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE (Susanne Bier, 2007)

After Steven Burke (David Duchovny) is killed while intervening during a domestic dispute between strangers, his wife Audrey (Halle Berry) invites his childhood friend Jerry Sunborne (Benicio Del Toro) to live with them. Still grappling with the loss of her husband and the ordeal of raising a ten-year-old daughter and six-year-old son alone, she's obviously in pain and in need of someone nearby. Her reaching out to Jerry wouldn't seem so unusual except that he is a recovering heroin addict and someone she took pains not to associate with until this moment.

In THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE Jerry moves into the garage next to the spacious Seattle home that couldn't feel any emptier to Audrey. The garage, like Jerry, is a work in progress. It has gone unrepaired for years after an electrical fire destroyed many precious family items housed in it. Jerry, on the other hand, has suffered from self-neglect and the junk he can't seem to break himself of.

Damaged individuals healing one another is a serviceable idea for a film, but THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE is missing an essential component: plausibility. People do funny things out of grief. Offering to let an unrehabilitated junkie move in and become part of the family is a big stretch, especially when the addict in question has been repelled for a long time.

Even so, the new arrangement might have been believable if the characters didn't feel as though they were being forced through the gears of Allan Loeb's screenplay. Each person in the film seems predisposed to connect instantly with everyone else, a matter exaggerated through truncated scenes that rush toward the inevitable resolution while failing to establish a foundation.

It isn't fair to characterize Jerry as a "magical junkie"--Del Toro plays the part free of excess sympathy and uncommon wisdom--but the fact remains that the film treats him like a redemptive talisman. Jerry might know how to induce slumber quickly, but the method he knows best doesn't come from cuddling and earlobe stroking but at the tip of a needle.

It's especially surprising that THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE is such a miss since director Susanne Bier has excelled in transforming soap opera material into the stuff of high drama in her Danish films. Volatile feelings fueled the blazing melodrama of BROTHERS and AFTER THE WEDDING, yet it was the universal truths underneath those outsized emotions that kept the films relatable. Conversely, THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE feels dishonest and cool to the touch. Forget about fires. This film couldn't produce a puff of smoke from tinder.

Grade: C-

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