Things We Lost in the Fire

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This review was written for the theatrical release of "Things We Lost in the Fire."

"Things We Lost in the Fire" is an unstable mix of a tearjerker, junkie-recovery story and odd-couple pairing. The film marks the American debut of Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, whose European films show a strong affinity for stories of human frailties and of families unraveling. So this one is right up her alley. One final twist: In going for the best actors, Bier has put together a racially mixed cast with Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro in roles that were undoubtedly written as white. What a refreshing change.

Despite the challenges of blending a European sensibility into a Hollywood production, the film holds together not all that badly. Bier brings her audience into the film, to live the story with the characters in a manner highly unusual in an American film. Normally such dramatic intensity and keen observation come in top Sundance films pitched to small adult audiences, but with Oscar-winning actors top billed and the full-court press of Paramount's marketing team, "Fire" could and should break out to a much wider audience.

The film does not initially follow a linear path. Tacking forward and back over a brief period of time, the film, written by Allan Loeb, much more effectively conveys a sense of devastating loss than chronology would provide. A comfortable, happy family of four suffers the tragic death of the father, Brian Burke (David Duchovny). Yet because Brian appears on and off throughout these opening scenes via flashbacks, his actual absence becomes all the more an emotional, physical and even spiritual void.

If there is a false note here it is that this is a family set up for a fall: Everyone is too happy, comfortable and good looking to be real, and dad is impossibly good. He even dies a hero's death, trying to rescue a battered woman from her abusive -- and, it turns out, murderous -- husband. He also is a real estate genius who leaves behind enough of a nest egg that the only issue confronting his family is his loss.

There apparently was only one sore point between Brian and his loving, sexy wife Audrey (Berry). She neither understands nor appreciates his continuing friendship and support of childhood friend Jerry (Del Toro), a lawyer who has landed on skid row thanks to heroin addiction. So Jerry's appearance, at Audrey's generous invitation, during Brian's funeral is that of a ghost from another world -- yet a world in which he knows things about Brian that his wife does not.

As the only adult who loved Brian as much as she did, Audrey finds herself unnervingly drawn to Jerry. She invites the recovering addict to occupy the family's garage that was converted into a living quarters following a fire but never occupied. Jerry soon finds himself uncomfortably acting as a surrogate father and head of house. Ten-year-old Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and 6-year-old Dory (Micah Berry, no relation to Halle) naturally respond to him with affection and emotional neediness. And there is something about him that allows him to tune into their wavelengths more easily than their own parents.

Another false note is hit when Audrey insists that Jerry come to her bed one night and hold her as Brian once did so she can fall asleep. It makes sense on no level -- especially given her antipathy for him at this time -- and the movie takes a while to recover.

Sensing that Jerry is getting too close to her kids, Audrey abruptly and unfairly kicks him out of the garage. She does so just as Jerry has gotten a real estate license thanks to a friendly neighbor (John Carroll Lynch), who is trying to shake off his own sense of loss following Brian's death. This rejection causes Jerry to relapse. A fellow Narcotics Anonymous attendee, Kelly (Alison Lohman), notices his absence and her tip sends Audrey into skid row to reclaim the troubled man.

The scenes of Jerry's recovery and Kelly's surprising impact on the Burke family elevate the third act into finely observed human drama. Despite its false steps, the film reclaims the intensity and integrity of its early scenes to finish on a note of hope.

Bier again sticks to the handheld camera style of previous films, even shoving her camera into actors' eyeballs, which is not always the best way to convey the emotions of particular scenes. Probably the most distracting problem is, oddly, her lead actress' glamour. With her own credited makeup artist and hair stylist, Berry walks into each scene, no matter what the emotions, as if ready for a photo shoot. The worst instance comes when Audrey searches for Jerry in a grim back alley junkies have turned into a shooting gallery. She is dressed in a tight outfit and eye-catching red jacket that is completely out of place.

Berry does deliver a solid performance as a woman and mother at the end of her emotional rope, not always rational but struggling to hold it together. Del Toro has nailed the junkie vibe without resorting to histrionics. He too is trying to hold himself together even as his insides threaten to implode. Duchovny makes a considerable impact in his brief appearances.

Lynch and Lohman do well with much meatier roles than minor supporting character generally have. Llewellyn and Berry are excellent as the children, who don't quite know how to feel about their father's death and the sudden appearance of a new man in their lives.

THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE
Paramount
DreamWorks presents a Neal Street production
Credits:
Director: Susanne Bier
Screenwriter: Allan Loeb
Producers: Sam Mendes, Sam Mercer
Executive producers: Pippa Harris, Allan Loeb
Director of photography: Tom Stern
Production designer: Richard Sherman
Music: Johan Soderqvist
Costume designer: Karen Matthews
Editors: Pernille Bech Christensen, Bruce Cannon
Cast:
Audrey Burke: Halle Berry
Jerry Sunborne: Benicio Del Toro
Brian: David Duchovny
Harper: Alexis Llewellyn
Dory: Micah Berry
Howard: John Carroll Lynch
Kelly: Alison Lohman
Neal: Omar Benson Miller
Running time -- 117 minutes
MPAA rating: R

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