(Weinstein) John Cusack, Alessandro Nivola, Shelan O’Keefe, Gracie Bednarczyk, Zachary Gray, Marisa Tomei, Mary Kay Place, Doug James. Directed by James C. Strouse.
In war, there is loss. It is an inevitable scene in any armed conflict, a military Chaplin arriving at the home of a wife-now-widow to inform and comfort. However, in the modern American military, there is now the potential of grieving widowers as well as widows.
Stanley Phillips (Cusack) is the definition of wasted potential. Overweight and awkward, his dreams of a military career were dashed by poor eyesight. Married to the vivacious, beautiful Grace, he has watched as she has assumed his dreams of serving in the military. She is deployed to Iraq while he cares for their two daughters and works a dead-end job as a manager for a home improvement store, trying to generate enthusiasm and motivate employees for a workplace he is neither enthusiastic for or motivated about.
Then one horrible day before work, he is visited by an Army Chaplin (James) to give him the news he least expects and most dreads; his wife has been killed in the line of duty. He is stunned and devastated, of course but the terrible task that lies before him is how does he tell his daughters that their mother is gone? The fact of the matter is that he barely knows how to communicate with his girls – 12-year-old Heidi (O’Keefe) and 8-year-old Dawn (Bednarczyk) even in the best of circumstances.
After picking them up from school, he spontaneously decides to take them on a road trip to Enchanted Village, a Florida theme park where the family had vacationed before Grace had shipped out. It would be one last beautiful memory before he must shatter the lives of his little girls.
This is highly emotionally charged subject matter. There is never an easy way to tell a child their mother is dead, and it certainly can’t be any easier when mommy is a soldier. However, as compelling a subject as this may be, that really isn’t what the movie is about. The core of Grace Is Gone is the relationship between Stanley and his daughters, how he struggles to understand them and relate to them particularly without the aid of his wife, who up to then he had relied on heavily in the raising of his children.
Stanley is not a particularly easy man to like. He is opinionated, intolerant and somewhat stand-offish. In the movie’s midsection, he goes to visit his mother only to find her not at home, while his ne’er-do-well brother (Nivola) is. The two men have a strained relationship, which makes sense; they couldn’t be more different. Whereas Stanley is uptight and responsible, his brother is relaxed and irresponsible. Stanley is staunchly conservative; his brother liberal. Those must have been some interesting family meals.
Still, Stanley is so centered around his wife, it’s painful to watch how lost he is without her. He calls their home phone answering machine to hear her voice, and then carries on conversations with her as if she had just answered the phone. It tears at the heartstrings, but it also is a powerful expression of his grief.
Cusack is magnificent in a role that is totally unlike anything he’s done before. Far from the wisecracking, fast-talking and urbane hipster he’s perfected in movies like Grosse Point Blank, High Fidelity and Say Anything, his Stanley is slow-moving and slow-witted. Not only does he not have all the answers, he barely knows what the questions are. In short, just like most parents. It’s a good thing he turns in a great performance here – the movie completely revolves around him, he’s in virtually every scene.
This made the film festival circuit and received a great deal of critical acclaim. There was talk of a campaign to lobby Academy members for a Best Actor nomination for Cusack although that either never materialized, or was unsuccessful. However, there are some missteps here. The script veers dangerously into maudlin territory at times, and it doesn’t help that the young actresses who play the daughters aren’t particularly memorable. Also, the landscapes are washed out and are curiously gray, as if the entire world is overcast, even indoors. Still, the intensity of the source material makes this a riveting, wrenching experience that will break your heart but also lift your spirit.
REASONS TO RENT: A timely subject matter about a situation rarely seen in movies. A magnificent performance by Cusack. A lovely soundtrack written by Clint Eastwood (!).
REASONS TO RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasional over-the-top maudlin moments. Child actresses aren’t memorable. Washed-out cinematography.
FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter may be a bit too intense for younger tykes. There is a scene of teen smoking, and some mild cursing.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Originally this was to be directed by Rob Reiner until he had to drop out during pre-production. The producers called in the film’s writer to direct.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
FINAL RATING: 9/10