The Man Who Killed Don Quixote


An iconic figure, his faithful manservant and Terry Gilliam’s 25-year-odyssey.

(2018) Adventure (Screen Media) Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Joana Ribeiro, Stellan Skarsgård, Olga Kurylenko, Jordi Mollá, Óscar Jaenada, Jason Watkins, Paloma Bloyd, Hovik Keuchkerian, Matilde Fluixa, Joe Manjón, Antonio Gil, Rodrigo Poison, Sergi López, Rossy de Palma, Bruno Schiappa, Hipolito Boro, Jorge Calvo, Will Keen, Viveka Rytzner. Directed by Terry Gilliam

 

Few films have as checkered a past as The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Visionary director and ex-Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam has been trying to get this film made since 1989. Unable to secure financing until 1998, he began filming only to have the production shut down after only a week following health problems for star Jean Rochefort’s health issues, a devastating flood which swept away nearly all the production’s equipment and assorted financial issues. Since then Gilliam has been continuing to get production restarted, adding some fairly big name actors to the cast but ultimately was unable to secure financing until 2017 when cameras finally rolled once again. Incredibly, production was eventually completed.

Now we see the finished product and was it worth 25 years of Gilliam’s life? Well, I suppose you’d have to ask him that. The story involved a jaded Hollywood commercial director named Toby (Driver) who as a student filmmaker commandeered a Spanish village and made a black and white film called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, transforming Javier (Pryce), an ordinary cobbler into believing he was actually Don Quixote, and Angelica (Ribeiro), a 15-year-old waitress into thinking she could be a star. The villagers, needless to say, don’t remember Toby fondly.

When Toby returns to the village of Los Suenos (“The Dreams”) years later while filming an insurance company commercial involving the Man of La Mancha, he is brought face to face with the results of his student film. The now-mad Javier mistakes Toby for Sancho Panza and off they go into the Spanish countryside where Toby nearly burns the village down, is arrested by the local constabulary, watches Don Quixote tilt at windmills and ends up at a lavish party thrown by a Russian Oligarch (Mollá) who now “owns” Angelica and assisted by Toby’s boss (Skarsgård) and his oversexed wife Jacqui (Kurylenko). Can Toby find a way back to reality through the cobbler’s madness or will he eventually get sucked in, Javier’s vision preferable to the real world?

This is not an easy movie to analyze; there are a ton of things going on and many layers to unravel. Toby could be considered a young Terry Gilliam, a bright and inventive creative mind worn down by dealing with the machine of commercial filmmaking. Quixote is the ideal he is striving to achieve. Or he can be construed as purity while Toby is the corrupted but not irretrievable. Quixote longs to re-create the Age of Chivalry; a return to an idealized past maybe? While Toby is the strictures of the present. I could go on and on…and already have.

There is a lot to think about here which is never a bad thing in a movie. My beef with The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is that it needed more Terry Gilliam; this feels stripped down and less imaginative than his other efforts. I think this would have benefited from a much larger budget to give Gilliam’s imagination full flower and perhaps that is why it has taken so long to make this; unless it’s a superhero film or a science fiction epic, Hollywood is loathe to give those mega-budgets out to just anyone, particularly to people like Gilliam whose movies don’t always make money.

Pryce is delightful as Quixote; his madness is at least sweet and essentially harmless unless he perceives you to be non-chivalrous. In that case things could get testy. Driver is a versatile actor who can do just about any kind of character; Toby is essentially a self-absorbed twerp who at any given moment thinks he’s the smartest person in the room. Beyond the student film, we don’t get a whole lot of background on Toby and the movie might have benefited from connecting the dots between student filmmaker to jaded commercial filmmaker. The mostly European cast does solid work throughout the film. There aren’t a lot of dazzling special effects shots here and the film could have used them.

Maybe I expected more from the film since it took so long to make it to the screen, and because Gilliam is such a visually arresting filmmaker. I get the sense that this isn’t the film he wanted to make but it was the film he could afford to make. Perhaps that’s true of most filmmakers.

REASONS TO SEE: Like any Terry Gilliam movie, this is chock full of imagination. Skewers the film industry with a rapier wit.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie could have used a little more whimsy.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some profanity, sexuality, violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Since 1989, Gilliam has made numerous attempts to get this film off the ground, most notably in 2000 when it became “the most cursed film in history” as documented by Lost in La Mancha. Over the years Gilliam has cast a number of actors as Quixote besides Pryce; Michael Palin, John Hurt, Jean Rochefort and Robert Duvall, two of whom have since passed away.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews: Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy

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Gemma Bovery


A portrait of wistfulness.

A portrait of wistfulness.

(2014) Romance (Music Box) Gemma Arterton, Fabrice Luchini, Jason Flemyng, Isabelle Candelier, Niels Schneider, Mel Raido, Elsa Zylberstein, Pip Torrens, Kacey Mottet Klein, Edith Scob, Philippe Uchan, Pascale Arbillot, Marie-Benedicte Roy, Christian Sinniger, Pierre Alloggia, Patrice Le Mehaute, Gaspard Beuacarne, Marianne Viville, Jean-Yves Freyburger. Directed by Anne Fontaine

Florida Film Festival 2015

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert is a masterwork of French literature, although not too many Americans have read it (then again, not too many Americans have read anything). The story concerns a doctor’s wife in a provincial French town who embarked on several adulterous affairs to relieve the boredom of life in the slow lane as well as an empty marriage. It was racy for its time and many of the themes of the book have echoed down through the ages, as has its realistic story telling style.

An English couple, Charlie (Flemyng) and Gemma (Arterton) Bovery have moved into a small French town where Flaubert wrote his masterpiece. Martin Joubert (Luchini), who runs a boulingerie with his acerbic, practical wife Valerie (Candelier), is taken by the couple’s similar name to the tragic heroine and with Gemma herself, a spirited and beautiful young woman. He is a big fan of classic literature and Madame Bovary is one of his favorites.

Gemma at first seems thrilled with all things French, taking deep, sensual breaths of the freshly baked bread, taking long walks through the countryside with her dog. Martin often walks with her, delighted by his new friend. However, he is prone to looking for similarities between Gemma and Emma (the given name of Flaubert’s heroine) and soon finds a big one when Gemma initiates a torrid affair with Hervé de Bressigny, the callow womanizing scion to a titled family that lives nearby who is home on a break from school. Certain that she is hurtling to a terrible end =takes steps to save Gemma from the same fate as Flaubert’s protagonist no matter what the cost.

Based on a French graphic novel which is in turn something of a satiric take on Flaubert’s novel, the movie moves at a pace that befits its setting in the lovely rural countryside of France although some American viewers, used to a more brisk rhythm to their film may become impatient. but American viewers willing to stick with the movie will be rewarded with one of the better endings to a movie as I’ve seen in recent years, although admittedly it takes a long time in getting there.

Luchini is one of France’s most dependable actors although he’s not well-known on this side of the Atlantic. He plays Martin as a man living a pretty ordinary life, with a teenage son (Klein) who’s a bit of an asshole, and a wife who is somewhat bemused by his penchant to see things through the lens of his beloved books. She supported him when he moved the family from Paris although she wasn’t particularly thrilled by the idea but has essentially accepted and even embraced their new life which they have been in for several years when the movie begins. Luchini tends to be subtle with his performance, never really allowing the character to sink into cartoonish excess (which would be easy to do) but still leaves that little twinkle of the eternal boy which his character truly is.

Arterton is one of those actresses who always delivers attention-grabbing performances but doesn’t get the respect she deserves. She really is one of the finest actresses out there right now and should be getting the kind of films that are being offered to Emma Watson, Keira Knightley and Felicity Jones but for some reason she’s still either by choice or circumstance laboring in smaller films on the fringes of big stardom. This is another terrific performance that leaves me scratching my head as to why this woman isn’t a big, big star.

Luchini is the mournful face of hopeless love here. The feeling of impending tragedy colors everything like dappled sunlight on a summer day that is offset by a chill wind. The village setting is charming but like the decaying cottages that Martin and Gemma live in, the charm is offset by the reality that it isn’t all wildflowers and croissants. The movie has a lot of comedic elements – are men of a certain age group who fall obsessively in love with a much younger woman really that pathetic? – although I suspect that the humor appeals to a more European sensibility than American, although some of the situations are more or less universal. Overall this is a marvelously French film that is at once sexy, wistful, tragic and ridiculous. I guess that our lives pretty much hit those same notes as well. Maybe not as sexy as French lives do though.

REASONS TO GO: Lovely rustic French setting. Great ending.
REASONS TO STAY: Sense of humor may be too European for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexuality, some nudity and also a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fontaine is best known as a director in the U.S. for Coco Before Chanel.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Madame Bovary
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Welcome to Me

Toast


Helena Bonham Carter's Mad Men audition didn't go as planned.

Helena Bonham Carter’s Mad Men audition didn’t go as planned.

(2010) Biographical Drama (W2 Media) Freddie Highmore, Helena Bonham Carter, Ken Stott, Oscar Kennedy, Victoria Hamilton, Matthew McNulty, Colin Prockter, Frasier Huckle, Kia Pegg, Rielly Newbold, Roger Walker, Rob Jarvis, Amy Marston, Selina Cadell, Louise Mardenborough, Corinne Wicks, Marion Bailey, Tracey Wilkinson, Claire Higgins. Directed by S.J. Clarkson

There is an old saying that says that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Personally, I don’t buy it; the way to a man’s heart is through a place lower in the anatomy, if you get my drift. Still, if you can keep a man well-fed, you have a decent shot at keeping a man once you’ve got him.

For young Nigel Slater (Kennedy), life in the late 50s/early 60s in England is blissful although flavorless. His Dad (Stott) is a factory manager with a grumpy temperament; his mom (Hamilton) sweet as can be although she has one flaw – she can’t cook to save her life. Everything she makes is boiled in a can (a pre-microwave era of making prepared foods) and when the contents of those cans came out overcooked, it would be toast for supper, something Nigel actually looked forward to.

As it turned out, his mum had another flaw – severe asthma and eventually it would take her life. Although Nigel misses her terribly, life continues on pretty much as before with dad being not much better at cooking than his late wife was.

Into their lives comes housekeeper Mrs. Potter (Bonham-Carter) who is in fact a brilliant cook – she seduces the Slaters with heavenly meringues and savory roasts. But the now-teenage Nigel (Highmore) has taken an interest in cooking himself and is jealous of the attention his father is paying Mrs. Potter – and yes, there IS a Mr. Potter. Eventually the Slaters pull up stakes and move out to the country, Mrs. Potter in tow and Nigel competes with Mrs. Potter for Mr. Slater, with Mrs. Potter having the upper hand. Nigel has also discovered his sexuality – and he is very much interested in boys, although he is too shy to approach any. What will his dad make of that?

This was originally made for British television and was a monster hit in the ratings there. Why they chose to release it in the U.S. is something of a mystery; Slater, a well-known food critic in Great Britain, is virtually unknown here across the pond.

That doesn’t mean that this isn’t worth watching. Even if you don’t know who Nigel would become, his story is still interesting and bittersweet. It’s also nice to see Britain in the ’60s, in some ways the apex of modern British culture (some might argue that the 80s were and I wouldn’t disagree) and the filmmakers capture the period beautifully here, even more so than Mad Men.

Bonham-Carter is an underrated actress who often appears in supporting roles in big movies yet almost always steals attention in a good way – see her Harry Potter appearances or Big Fish if you disagree. While I get the sense that the filmmakers aren’t quite sure what they make of the Mrs. Potter character, whether she’s an adulterous manipulative homewrecker or a woman trying her best to please a family that’s been through hell. Nigel is much more clear; he thinks she’s the former and loathes the woman although we can’t always see why. In many ways, we begin to root against the main character which is rather odd because Bonham-Carter isn’t the focus; Nigel is and the more he hates Mrs. Potter, the more we see him as a spoiled officious twit.

The movie is a bit overbearing in places and makes a lot of its points with a sledge hammer when a Q-tip would have done. I could have used some subtitles in places as some of the rural accents were a bit difficult to decipher.

There was some entertainment to be had here and there are some funny moments but by and large I found that the filmmakers didn’t appear to have the courage of their convictions. The real Mrs. Potter’s daughters (Nigel’s stepsisters) have excoriated the movie (and Slater’s autobiography which inspired it) for the portrayal both of Mr. Slater and Mrs. Potter (her name was even changed for the movie) and while they have a bit of an ulterior motive, just the way these portrayals are made in the film tell me that they are a bit skewed by Nigel’s own prejudices in the matter which is only to be expected. We all see things through our own lens of self-interest.

WHY RENT THIS: Bonham-Carter is always fascinating onscreen. Captures period nicely.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t use Bonham-Carter’s character well. A bit heavy-handed.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, period smoking and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The chef at the Savoy Hotel who appears in the final scene is the real Nigel Slater.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (unavailable), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (unavailable), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Reservations
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Get Hard

In a Better World (Haevnen)


In a Better World

Some father and son heart-to-hearts don't quite have the desired effect.

(2010) Drama (Sony Classics) Mikael Persbrandt, Markus Rygaard, William Johnk Juels Nielsen, Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomsen, Toke Lars Bjarke, Kim Bodnia, Wil Johnson, Elsebeth Streentoft, Camilla Gottleib, Odiege Matthew, Simon Maagaard Holm. Directed by Susanne Bier

All of us have some sort of moral compass that guides them, be it a motivation to do the right thing or one to act only in one’s own self-interest. There are also times in all of our lives when we are required to use that compass in order to make a profound decision, one that may affect not only our own lives but of those around us.

Anton (Persbrandt) is a Swedish doctor living in a small town in Denmark. Well, some of the time anyway – he spends a good deal of time working in refugee camps in what appears to be the Sudan (although it’s never specifically spelled out in the film). Much of his time is spent patching up the victims of a particularly sadistic warlord nicknamed The Big Man (Matthew), who likes to bet his functionaries what the sex of an unborn child but being somewhat impatient, prefers to rip the fetus out of the womb rather than wait for it to be born. His moral resolve is tested when the Big Man himself comes into the refugee camp, demanding to be treated for an infected leg.

He is married to Marianne (Dyrholm) but only loosely. A fellow doctor who stays at home with their sons Elias (Rygaard) and Morten (Bjarke), the relationship between the two has come to a breaking point after Anton cheated on Marianne. Edging closer to divorce, Anton’s infrequent visits home are characterized by separate residences and strained silences.

Elias is bullied at school, particularly by Sofus (Holm), a large blonde kid who doesn’t like Swedes to begin with (apparently there is some hostility towards Swedes in Denmark) but doesn’t like Elias in particular, referring to him as “Rat Face” (due to his angular features and braces). Sofus delights in tormenting Elias, flattening his bicycle tires and stealing the valves so that Elias can’t re-inflate them.

This is observed by Christian (Nielsen), a new kid in town whose mother recently lost a long fight with cancer. Christian is angered at his father Claus (Thomsen), who lied to him when promising his mother would get better but worse still – for wanting his mother to die during the late stages of the disease when she was suffering terribly. Christian has developed an intense hatred of bullies and defends Elias, taking on the much bigger Sofus – beating him mercilessly with a bicycle pump, at last threatening the bully with a knife.

This brings the police into the matter, although both boys defend each other and protect each other, knowing that if the knife is found or attributed to Christian it would mean immediate expulsion. Right about then Anton returns home, staying in the family summer house.

When Anton breaks up a fight between Morten and another boy, the boy’s father Lars (Bodnia) warns Anton not to touch his boy and slaps Anton, causing obvious embarrassment mostly because it was witnessed by Christian and Elias, who have become fast friends. Anton, a pacifist, believes that not responding to the provocation was the right thing to do. Christian and Elias are not so sure, believing Anton to be afraid. In order to prove to the boys he isn’t afraid, he takes them to Lars’ auto shop and confronts the adult bully. Lars continues to abuse and slap Anton, but Anton never flinches. Pleased with himself, he is satisfied that he has taught the boys a valuable lesson. Christian, however, has taken a different lesson away and resolves to do something about Lars – something serious that will forever change the course of his life and that of Elias.

This is the most recent recipient of the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, winning also the Golden Globe for the same category (a very rare occurrence I can assure you). Director Biers constructs a morality play, setting it in a bucolic Danish town where life would seem idyllic, and in a refugee camp. She wisely plays the moral dilemmas of Anton (in treating the Big Man) and his son (in following Christian down a path of vengeance) side by side in parallel stories, emphasizing how similar the two situations are.

She is helped by having two fine juvenile leads. Both Nielsen and Rygaard are convincing, coming off as real kids without saving the day or acting beyond their years. Like all children, Christian and Elias don’t have sufficiently developed moral compasses at this point in their lives, and make decisions essentially based on incomplete information.

Persbrandt is not a name I was familiar with, but he does a terrific job as Anton, displaying the moral ambiguity of a man who cheated on his wife, yet lectures his sons about morality. Anton’s obvious anguish at having violated his own ethics is clear, as is his devotion to his sons. I understand he is one of the most respected actors in Scandinavia – I can certainly see why.

Dyrholm is also fine as a woman who feels completely lost and doesn’t know how to find her way back, or even if she wants to. Marianne can be shrill and sometimes takes her anger out on her son who blames her for not forgiving his dad. Thomsen, as the grieving father, is similarly solid. His grief renders him nearly inert, unable to take action as his son treads increasingly dangerous waters.

I like the conversation this brings up in terms of the use of violence as a tool of vengeance (in fact, the Danish title for the movie is “The Revenge”). Not that violence doesn’t exist in Denmark – of course it does – but it’s far less prevalent there than here, so the impact of the movie was probably more intense in Denmark than here. The truth is we become desensitized to violence, seeing it as a means of getting even, knowing that it solves nothing. Anton may have been ineffective in conveying his message to Christian and Elias, but it’s a good message nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: A quiet little drama that settles in on violence and vengeance. Juvenile leads do a tremendous job.

REASONS TO STAY: Needed to make its points a little more subtly.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence that’s occasionally shocking (some of it involving pre-teens), there’s some disturbing images and some snippets of foul language and sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story Christian reads at his mother’s funeral is “The Nightingale” by Hans Christian Anderson.

HOME OR THEATER: The great African vistas look terrific on the big screen but so too does the bucolic imagery of the small Danish town. In other words, catch it in a theater if you can.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

TOMORROW: Disgrace

The Signal


The Signal

End transmission.

(2007) Horror (Magnet) Anessa Ramsey, Sahr Ngaujah, AJ Bowen, Matt Stanton, Suehyla El-Attar, Justin Welborn, Cheri Christian, Scott Poythress, Christopher Thomas, Lindsey Garrett, Chadrian McKnight. Directed by David Brucker, Jacob Gentry and Dan Bush

When the end of the world comes, how would you spend it? Would you want to be with the one you love to face the inevitable or would you fight for survival?

The end of the world has come to Terminus, although the people there don’t know it. Mya Denton (Ramsey) is having an affair with Ben (Welborn) who begs her to come with her to the bus station and leave her abusive husband Lewis (Bowen) behind. Mya can’t quite bring herself to do it and she goes home to her husband, who is having an argument with two friends as they watch the ball game. Suddenly, Lewis grabs a baseball bat and begins beating one of his friends to death with it. Batter up.

This section, titled “Transmission I: Crazy Love” was directed by Brucker. Up next is “Transmission II: The Jealousy Monster” directed by Gentry. Mya and Lewis’ friend Rod (Ngaujah) try to get away but Rod has been infected by the signal and causes their car to crash. Nice guy Clark (Poythress) tries to make sure Mya’s okay but she doesn’t trust anyone so she warns him off and makes for the bus station on foot. Meanwhile Clark’s neighbor Anna (Christian), who is throwing a New Year’s Eve party, is distressed over having had to murder her husband who was trying to strangle her. This has driven her over the edge and she thinks that Clark is her husband. Lewis arrives, completely enraged and hallucinating badly, believes that Anna is Mya. Jim Parsons (McKnight), an invited guest, arrives and believes he wants to get laid. Lewis kills everybody just to make things less confusing.

The final section is “Transmission III: Escape from Terminus” and is directed by Bush (by a process of elimination). In this portion, Ben escapes to try and find Mya and Lewis heads over to try and find her first, as the city crumbles into chaos. What state will she be in when they find her?

Each of the three sections is done in a different style; the first is a kind of indie drama, while the second is black comedy; the third is action packed. It can get a little bit jarring moving from section to section, but mostly, the actors all remain the same.

While these are essentially unknowns, the acting is pretty decent enough – I’ve seen worse with bigger budgets. The effects are essentially bargain basement as you might guess, but there are so few of them that mostly it’s about fake blood and make-up wounds which are relatively inexpensive compared to CGI. Everything else is just a matter of planning and luck.

Most indie horror movies have a tendency to either be too cerebral to be truly terrifying, or too gory to be terrifying (one gets numbed to gore pretty quickly). The Signal finds the right balance and ends up being terrifying. While the concept of signals sent over the airwaves to cause mass psychosis is nothing new, this is one of the best versions I’ve seen. It’s equally irreverent as it is relevant to our use of technology and the dangers of being too reliant on it. If you’re looking for a scare flick you haven’t seen yet to while away a Friday night, this one might be for you.

WHY RENT THIS: As indie horror films go, this is a gem. Less claustrophobic than Pontypool and certainly a little wackier.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Three separate directors directing separately make for some interesting style differentials, but this can also be unnecessarily distracting.

FAMILY VALUES: A lot of bloody, gory violence and a good deal of filthy language. There’s some brief nudity and sexual innuendo as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fictional city in the film is called Terminus, which was the original name of the city of Atlanta, Georgia where the movie was actually filmed.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are several online viral videos that marketed the movie before its limited release, including the bloody results at a television station when the signal first arrives as well as a cheerful family picnic amidst the carnage and mayhem of the apocalypse. Two minutes of the short The Hap Hapgood Story were aired during the film; the entire ten-minute short is thoughtfully provided here. Finally, you can see the signal itself, eight hours and 24 minutes worth, if you really want to.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $371,568 on an unreported production budget; while there’s a chance the project made money, it probably didn’t.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: The Celestine Prophecy

Sunshine Cleaning


Sunshine Cleaning

Mary Lynn Rajskub and Emily Blunt share an awkward moment on an elevator.

(Overture) Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin, Steve Zahn, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Clifton Collins Jr., Jason Spevack, Paul Dooley, Eric Christian Olsen. Directed by Christine Jeffs

Life is a messy business, so you might as well get paid for cleaning up after it. At least, that’s the theory.

Rose (Adams) is a single mother struggling to make ends meet. She works as a maid in a low-rent New Mexico hotel, worries with a high-strung 7-year-old boy causing chaos in a public school that would just as soon see him drugged. She carries on an affair with Mac (Zahn) the high school quarterback who fathered her child then abandoned her to marry someone else.

It is Mac who gives her the idea to start up a new business when he mentions off-handedly that crime scene clean-up pays very well. With no idea what is involved in the disposal of blood, guts ‘n’ gore from a living space, she approaches the idea with moxie and spunk, roping her shiftless sister Norah (Blunt) into helping her out with the encouragement of her Dad (Arkin) who never met a get-rich-quick scheme he didn’t like – and that didn’t send him fleeing for the poorhouse.

Rose begins to feel that the job is a bit of a calling. Norah, who does her own thing (and it’s usually the wrong thing), becomes involved in the life of the daughter (Rajskub) of a client who had committed suicide, and in a somewhat awkward way as well. Norah is the polar opposite of the straitlaced, slightly anal Rose. Where one likes to plan, the other prefers spontaneity. Where one is ambitious, the other is a slacker. I’m sure you know which one is which.

Rose has issues of her own, however. She has an inferiority complex stemming from her high school years, when she was the cheerleader and the belle of the ball. Ashamed of her lowly station in life, her new business is giving her self-confidence for the first time since her glory days. Attending a baby shower at which many of her former schoolmates will be in attendance becomes nearly as important to her as getting her son into a private school. This leads to a disaster that could spell the end of nearly every one of Rose’s dreams, as well as her relationship with her sister.

The producers of this film have another movie to their credit to which they are anxious to compare this one to: Little Miss Sunshine. Unfortunately, all the two films really have in common is their New Mexico setting, the word “Sunshine” in their titles and Alan Arkin. This is, I think, meant to be a black comedy. I’m not really sure. Something tells me that the filmmakers aren’t either.

That’s not to say that this movie isn’t without its charms. Adams is an accomplished actress who delivers a nicely layered performance. She is at once the mousy maid who has been smacked around overly much by life, the efficient and organized boss, the enthusiastic lover and the compassionate friend, not to mention the fiercely defensive mom. For my money, it’s some of the Oscar-nominated actress’ best work ever, although it was sadly overlooked.

Blunt is a talented actress in her own right as well, and she gives a solid performance in a role that is not written as well as Rose is. I got the impression at times that some of the things Norah does to screw up are done merely to advance the story along. They don’t seem terribly organic with the character that is not as brainless as her actions seem to make out she is.

Arkin delivers his usual fine work in a role that has come to define him pretty much over the last several years; the crotchety but eccentric dad/granddad. It’s a role he’s been playing for a couple of decades now (you can see the germs of it in Edward Scissorhands) and he does it better than anybody.

I tend to have a soft spot for movies that show a side of real life that we don’t often get to see portrayed onscreen. Truthfully, I never wondered who cleaned up a murder scene after the forensics team leaves the scene but obviously somebody must. Roger Ebert mused that there was a documentary in this movie somewhere and he’s right; unfortunately, there’s also a better movie in here as well.

I’m a big believer in the theory that characters should drive the actions, not the other way around. A good movie will take a set of characters, plop them into a situation and then see what they make of it. A movie that has to resort to having a stock idiot character in the mix is suffering from lazy writing and in almost every case will be flawed and not nearly as good as it could have been.

It’s too bad that the movie wasn’t better written because it has a lot going for it. I like the premise, I like the setting, I like the acting, heck I even like the gruesome crime scenes. This is a movie that swayed between being a black comedy and a slice-of-life drama and winds up somewhere in-between in a no man’s land of indecision. It’s worth seeing for the performances of the leads, but only just.

WHY RENT THIS: Adams, Blunt and Arkin give solid performances. A twisted slice of real life served up in New Mexico, where movies don’t film often enough.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the imagery and subject matter is squirm-inducing. Norah is such a screw-up at times that you wonder if she was written that way just as a plot device.

FAMILY VALUES: Some very disturbing images not suitable for children; also there is a goodly amount of foul language as well as some drug use and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the first two seasons of “The Office,” Adams played John Krasinski’s girlfriend. Blunt was Krasinski’s girlfriend in real life at the time of filming.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the realities of crime scene cleaning with some people who do the job in real life.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: I Love You, Man