Decoding Annie Parker: Hamptons Review
Samantha Morton and Helen Hunt play women obsessed with understanding cancer.
A peculiar kind of disease drama, Steven Bernstein's Decoding Annie Parker begins with the suggestion of a strong connection between two women obsessed with cancer -- one a researcher, the other a patient -- but keeps viewers waiting for an intertwining of their stories that never comes. A high-profile cast will open some doors for a film whose theme guarantees a certain degree of audience acceptance, but the picture's commercial prospects are about as meager as its dramatic payoff.
Samantha Morton plays the title character, a Toronto woman who lost her mother to cancer during childhood and has always intuited -- via a superstition about Death living in a locked bedroom upstairs -- that the disease would someday come for her as well. That fear grows when, barely into adulthood, her sister dies of breast cancer. Compulsive lump-checking sets in, and soon Annie and husband Paul (a wannabe rock star played by Aaron Paul) are dealing with her own breast cancer diagnosis.
Across the continent, at U.C. Berkeley, geneticist Mary-Claire King (Helen Hunt) leads a team of scientists who believe what Annie instinctively knows: Some cancers may be hereditary. Their research is seen as frivolous or quixotic by many peers, a haystack-searching mission in an era when computers (a colleague brags about his mainframe that can hold nearly a megabyte of data) were hardly capable of doing the gruntwork.
The two women are similar in their drive (Annie has set out to become a self-taught cancer expert) and suffer the same patronizing attitudes from male doctors, but their only tangible connection is the one-way correspondence Annie initiates when she learns of Mary-Claire's work. Those unanswered letters get added to Mary-Claire's huge pile of data; though the title hints that Annie's genetic code played a part in unlocking cancer's secrets, all the scientific sleuthing happens far from Annie.
What we're left with is a conventional story of illness and its ability to wreck otherwise happy lives. Paul, formerly an enthusiastic lover, is disgusted by his wife's mastectomy scar and alienated by her newfound obsession with chromosomes. Annie, having endured the banal and tone-deaf ways outsiders try to comfort those dealing with death or disease, struggles not to lose her spirit. In a cloying voiceover, she engages in some gallows humor that isn't funny enough to counter the dreariness onscreen.
Bernstein and his co-screenwriters are as interested in the science as they are in family angst, but are out of their element there: The film can't dramatize Mary-Claire's decades-long inquiry in a way that makes incremental discoveries stand out. (It's more successful in playing up the cluelessness of doctors who refused to admit the possibility of genetic links we now take for granted.) The film's vibe isn't helped by its drab look, which is surprising given that first-time helmer Bernstein comes from a long career as a cinematographer -- though reports suggest the East Hampton premiere suffered from unacknowledged problems with a digital projector, and that a second screening in Southampton exhibited a warmer palette and deeper color saturation.
Production: Unified Pictures
Cast: Samantha Morton, Helen Hunt, Aaron Paul, Alice Eve, Rashida Jones, Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford
Director: Steven Bernstein
Screenwriters: Steven Bernstein, Adam Bernstein, Michael Moss
Producers: Steven Bernstein, Clark Peterson, Keith Kjarval, Stuart W. Ross, Ron Senkowski, Mary Vernieu
Executive producers: Johnathan Brownlee, Aaron L. Gilbert, Nolan Mcdonald, Tara Moross
Director of photography: Ted Hayash
Production designer: Rob Howeth
Music: Steven Bramson
Costume designer: Karyn Wagner
Editor: Douglas Grise
No rating, 99 minutes