Grace Is Gone

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This review was written for the festival screening of "Grace Is Gone." 

Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- "Grace Is Gone" is not a dishonest film for you sense the fledgling filmmaker's sincere desire to deal with grief, the natural outcome of war. But the grief in writer-director James C. Strouse's "Grace" is so heavily manufactured that everything rings hollow. In John Cusack, Strouse has one of the screen's more versatile leading men. Yet Cusack seems strangely remote in a surprisingly one-note performance that requires the audience to supply the emotions.

From the sounds of sniffles in the Eccles Theater here, many will do just that. Much of these feelings owes to the highly manipulative use of two very young actors who play Cusack's adolescent daughters. The eldest, Shelan O'Keefe, is the best thing about the movie. But the younger one, Grace Bednarczyk, is Strouse's go-to person when he needs a quick emotional jolt.

Sensing a hot property, the Weinstein Co. snapped up this picture over the weekend. As an antidote to the Bush administration's determination to keep images of grief over Iraq out of the media, the film may work at the boxoffice as a political statement. In theory though, shouldn't this movie be about any war and any family's loss? The marketing campaign may have to be as manipulative as the movie itself if the distributor is going to convince adult audiences they need a good weep.

Instead of creating an air of normalcy before news of the tragedy breaks, Strouse allows the film to open with a sense of melancholy, loss and anger. One can rationalize this approach, but the film never undergoes a dramatic tonal shift to reflect the impact of unbearable news.

Stanley Phillips' (Cusack) sullenness while his wife is deployed to Iraq, you later learn, is due to the fact the spouses are U.S. Army through and through but Stanley was forced out of the service due to bad eyesight. He fakes good cheer as manager of a large Midwestern housing supply store, but at home he is often silent and overly stern with his kids, Heidi (O'Keefe), 12, and Dawn (Bednarczyk), 8.

Then an Army officer and chaplain knock on the door one morning to inform him that Sgt. Grace Anne Phillips has been killed in Iraq. Stanley goes into shock, which doesn't look all that different from his demeanor the night before. That afternoon, he gathers the family in the living room to break the news -- only he can't. He seeks a delaying tactic by suggesting a dinner out. Heidi points out it is only 4 o'clock.

The remainder of the movie is one delaying tactic after another. Dad suggests an impromptu driving trip to a theme park in Florida. En route, he makes an impromptu visit to his mom's home for an encounter with his unemployed anti-war brother (Alessandro Nivola). A stop at a motel is interrupted by an impromptu middle-of-the-night departure.

All of these "impromptu" incidents are meant to resonate with the sense of loss that such a death brings. Most have a symbolic purpose as well, such as getting the girls' ears pieced at such an early age -- i.e., the premature loss of childhood. Yet these incidents are as blatant as they are bland. The filmmaker's scheme is writ so large on the screen as to provoke embarrassment rather than grief.

The mind starts to wander to little irritating details. When the girls climb back and forth between the front and back seats of the family SUV, you wonder what kind of responsible father would allow his children not to wear seatbelts. The most egregious devise has Stanley constantly calling the home answering machine to hear his wife's voice.

When the movie finally must resolve the dad's prolonged dilemma, half way through the pivotal scene Strouse allows Max Richter's sappy music to drown out the dialogue. The button-pushing music is accompanied by a washed-out look in Jean-Louis Bompoint's cinematography that is apparently meant to give the film true grit. Like all of these strategies, these only underscore the film's lack of true depth.

GRACE IS GONE
The Weinstein Co.
Plum Pictures and New Crime Productions in association with Hart/Lunsford Pictures
Credits:
Writer/director: James C. Strouse
Producers: John Cusack, Grace Loh, Galt Niederhoffer, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Celine Rattray
Executive producers: Paul Bernstein, Reagan Silber, Jai Stefan, Todd Traina
Director of photography: Jean-Louis Bompoint
Production designer: Susan Block
Music: Max Richter
Costume designer: Ha Nguyen
Editor: Joe Klotz
Cast:
Stanley Phillips: John Cusack
Heidi: Shelan O'Keefe
Dawn: Gracie Bednarczyk
John: Alessandro Nivola
Running time -- 92 minutes
No MPAA rating

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