Constellation

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The funeral of a beloved elder aunt is the catalyst for a family's flat-footed soul searching in the ultra-earnest "Constellation." An accomplished cast that includes Billy Dee Williams, Lesley Ann Warren and Rae Dawn Chong struggles to elevate material that rarely gets deeper than a daytime soap, though it tries mightily. The theme of forbidden interracial love and its resonance through the generations could draw female viewers. But while the film, which opens today, is not without affecting moments, the preponderance of lifeless, stilted scenes will not generate positive word-of-mouth.

As the sophomore feature from screenwriter-director Jordan Walker-Pearlman, "Constellation" is a particular disappointment; his 2000 debut, "The Visit," was a potent and affecting drama that announced Hill Harper as a performer of no small talent. Harper delivers some of the best work in "Constellation," but the film remains an ungainly exploration of one family's emotional legacy.

The black Boxers gather in Huntsville, Ala., after the death of Carmel (Gabrielle Union), who 50 years earlier was in love with a white boy, Bear Korngold (Daniel Bess). In the midcentury Deep South, he hadn't the nerve to follow his heart and marry her. In the present day, played by David Clennon with clenched-jaw introspection, he is an unmarried gent who organizes Carmel's funeral.

Only her brother, Helms (Williams), knows that Carmel and Bear were at one time more than friends. Now a Paris-based artist -- the kind who knots a silk cravat around his neck -- Helms keeps an emotional distance from his two daughters, half-sisters Lucy (Melissa De Sousa) and the flintier Rosa (Zoe Saldana). But he turns on the charm with their mothers (Warren and Chong, both of whom are good at showing their wary characters captivated despite themselves). Rosa, who was especially close to Carmel, must confront her lingering pain over a bad breakup with Errol (Harper). A womanizer and sensitive photographer, he shows up for the funeral eager to try again.

The story proceeds fitfully via flashbacks and excruciating psychologizing. Characters repeatedly explain their feelings in dully staged restaurant scenes, while Carmel's narration from death abounds in precious poetic language. With the exception of Harper, Saldana and Williams, the performers look uncomfortable, which is not surprising given the awkward exposition required of them.

In the rare -- and usually wordless -- moments when Walker-Pearlman takes his characters into unpredictable territory, mysterious and compelling things do happen, as when Williams' self-important lion wanders into a neighborhood barbecue and loses it. But otherwise heavy-handedness prevails, with the schmaltzy original score as unconvincing as the script. An over-reliance on song, from pop to Puccini to Ellington to hip-hop, doesn't compensate for what's lacking in the storytelling.

CONSTELLATION
Bigger Pictures
A CodeBlack Entertainment/DaWa Movies presentation in association with Starship and Encounter Studios
Credits:
Screenwriter-director: Jordan Walker-Pearlman
Producers: Shannon Murphy, Jordan Walker-Pearlman
Executive producers: Nancy Archuleta, Gabe Nieto, Morris Ruskin
Co-executive producer: Kristi Gamble
Director of photography: John Demps
Production designer: Liba Daniels
Music: Michael Bearden, Stefan Dickerson, Stanley A. Smith
Costume designer: Jeanette Guillermo
Editor: Alison Learned Wolf
Cast:
Carmel Boxer: Gabrielle Union
Errol: Hill Harper
Helms Boxer: Billy Dee Williams
Rosa: Zoe Saldana
Lucy: Melissa De Sousa
Nancy: Lesley Ann Warren
Jenita: Rae Dawn Chong
Bear: David Clennon
Celeste: Ever Carradine
Young Bear: Daniel Bess
Forrest Boxer: Clarence Williams III
Running time -- 96 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13
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