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Talented cast saves Finding Neverland

By Lady Liberty
web posted February 7, 2005

Finding Neverland

** 1/2 out of ****

Finding NeverlandIt's that time of year when, rather than see every new release (many of which are weak during this early part of the season), I scramble to see what Oscar-nominated fare I can. Sometimes, it's well worth the time and effort (I'm still not over the brilliance of the superalative Sideways). Sometimes, it's not (consider my unchanged opinion that Million Dollar Baby is significantly overrated). And sometimes, I'm ambivalent, which brings me to Finding Neverland.

Finding Neverland is (according to the official Web site) the "fictionalized account" of J.M. Barrie's creation of Peter Pan. In other words, there are characters who portray real people, but those characters don't necessarily bear much resemblence to the real people themselves. It's my understanding that Finding Neverland not only fictionalized some portions of the story, but also cleaned it up (for example, the movie shows Barrie's relationshiop with a pretty widow to be platonic; in real life, most agree that it was not). It's likely best in cases like this to look at the movie on its own rather than to compare it with any reality it might tempt us to try to recall.

The movie begins with a truth: that J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) was a well known writer in turn of the century London. His most recent play, however, isn't exactly getting rave reviews from his audiences, his chief investor (Charles Frohman, played by a bearded Dustin Hoffman), or his distant wife (Radha Mitchell). Fresh on the heals of this apparent failure, Barrie heads out for a walk in the park with his St. Bernard, Porthos, seeking inspiration for his next effort. Purely by happenstance, he meets the Llewelyn-Davies family when a game the children are playing involves the bench on which he's seated. First, Barrie meets several of four Llewelyn-Davis boys; then he meets their young widowed mother, Sylvia (Kate Winslet).

Barrie promptly joins in the children's games of imagination, and contributes his own vivid fantasies to their fun. One of the boys, however, doesn't see Porthos as a dancing bear, nor does he buy any of Barrie's other fancies. His name is Peter (Freddy Highmore), and among the children he's taken his father's death the hardest. But the boy's sensitivity and imagination rival Barrie's if he'll only develop them, and Barrie makes it a point to do what he can to bring Peter out of his mourning and into a life where he can once again have some small amount of joy.

For all that Barrie gains from the Llewelyn-Davies family, they benefit from his attention, too. Sylvia's mother, however (Mrs. DuMaurier, played by Julie Christie), is a formidable obstacle to the expanding relationship. She demands responsibility and seriousness from the children, and insists her daughter be free to seek another husband, something that Barrie is making more and more difficult for Sylvia to do. But while the dynamics of the Llewelyn-Davis family play out in laughter and pain, and Barrie's marriage continues to wither, his inspiration has also returned and he's determined despite naysayers to see Peter Pan brought to the Edwardian Theatre stage.

Johnny Depp is virtually guaranteed to give a wonderful performance, and his turn as J.M. Barrie is no exception. But the truth is that Depp, who really is very good (he's been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar), has been better. (He was better, for example, in Pirates of the Caribbean—where, as far as I'm concerned, he was robbed of the Oscar for which he was also nominated). In part, that has to do with a relatively staid screenplay (strangely enough, the screenplay has also been nominated for an Oscar in a category which, if there is justice, will be taken by Sideways).

Kate Winslet is also good, though her character is played much on the surface thanks again to the script. Radha Mitchell has much the same problem. Julie Christie comes across as unbending to the point of being brittle, which is just where she should be, and she manages to convey all of that primarily via body language, a testament to her substantial talent; Dustin Hoffman, though offering a bit of comedic relief, is the only actor in the production who fails to have an English accent (which in a period piece is, in my mind, unpardonable). Freddy Highmore as the young Peter does a terrific job as a wistful and very wounded little boy. (His strength in this role got him the lead in the upcoming Tim Burton remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, also starring Depp; we'll see if the boy has more range next July.)

Finding Neverland is directed by Marc Forster, the man behind the brilliant Monster's Ball. Finding Neverland, however, has some confusing edits that counteract some of its more cleverly merged scenes. The sets and costumes are very good (Finding Neverland is noominated for an Oscar in Art Direction, something it deserves but which rightfully belongs to The Phantom of the Opera); the story is touching, tragic, and a delight by turns. But the script brings Finding Neverland down to the purely ordinary. This story deserves better.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Finding Neverland is rated PG for "thematic elements [and] brief language." Though there's little that's objectionable in the film for those older than about 10, period pieces aren't typically those that bring much joy or excitement to youngsters. Finding Neverland, though the subject matter might suggest otherwise, is no exception. Those with an interest in beautifully rendered sets and costumes will doubtless enjoy much of the film, and the stage production of Peter Pan is a sheer joy to watch. But as a whole, you'll not have missed much if you choose to miss Finding Neverland.

In Good Company

* 1/2 out of ****

In Good CompanyIn Good Company has been garnering suprisingly good reviews for what appeared to me to be a fairly typical date movie. Thanks to those reviews and the fact that it was conveniently showing in the same building and right after another movie I was seeing, I decided to go. I'll tell you now that it was a good thing it was convenient. If I'd gone to any trouble and spent the money on a ticket besides, I wouldn't have been too happy about it.

Dennis Quaid (Dan Foreman) is a middle-aged man who has achieved some success in corporate America coupled with a certain satisfaction with his personal life. He's the advertising manager for Sports America magazine which is coming off its best year ever; his two daughters are relatively well-adjusted good kids, and he's still in love with his pretty wife, Ann (Marg Helgenberger). But upheavals in every facet of Dan's life are in store as, in rapid succession, he learns the magazine has been sold to a congolmerage called Globecom, his wife is unexpectedly pregnant, and his oldest daughter, Alex (Scarlett Johansson) has been accepted as a transfer student to NYU. Now Dan is afraid he'll lose his job even as the expenses of a new baby and high tuition loom in his immediate future.

As it turns out, Dan's not fired, but he is demoted to make way for a 26 year-old marketing powerhouse named Carter Duryea (Topher Grace). Knowing he can ill afford to be unemployed, Dan does his best to play along with whatever his new boss tells him to do. But layoffs and changes he considers bad moves don't come easy for him. Meanwhile, Carter appears confident enough on the outside, but is having some real problems of his own. His fickle wife of just seven months (Kimberly, played by Selma Blair) walks out on him, and he finds himself at loose ends in the big city. Coincidentally, he runs into Alex who is also alone in the big city during her first days at her new school, and the pair soon begin a relationship that both try to keep secret from Dan.

Dan somehow copes with his on-the-job stress, his wife's difficult pregnancy, and his daughter's move. But what will he do if he discovers his boss and his daughter are dating? And what will happen if Globecom's mogul owner Teddy K (Malcolm MacDowell) decides he might like to buy or sell a few more companies and hire or fire a few more managers?

I think that Dennis Quaid is a terrific actor, which is one reason I'm so disappointed to see him in this movie. It's beneath him and his talents. Topher Grace is making a real name for himself as a movie actor, parleying his television fame into what will likely prove a lucrative film career. Although he's quite good playing characters like Carter Dureyea, I suspect that he, too, is better. Scarlett Johansson appears very much a fish out of water in this film. She looks like neither of her movie parents, and she looks and sounds too mature to be playing a confused teenager. Hers is not a matter of talent or a lack thereof, but of a real casting mistake. The rest of the cast is okay; it's the movie that's not.

In Good Company has fine production values and decent direction. It has a capable cast. What it doesn't have is a story of a script that rise anywhere above the strictly ordinary. In Good Company is a rental at best.

POLITICAL NOTES: Though the moralizing speeches are somewhat ham-handed in the film, there's something to be said for bringing attention to the global congolmerates that place the bottom line above all else. While businesses are in business to make money, they don't stay in business for long when they're in and out of business only as quickly as they can turn a profit. The American predilection for doing just that kind of business is why Japan, with its stockholders' willingness to hold out for long term profitability, is kicking the rest of the world where high technology is concerned. Americans invented VCRs and virtual reality; Japan took the former market handily and is on its way to owning the latter. Those Americans declining to invest in nanotechnology might take note that Japan has begun making significant investments in that arena while Americans dabble and dally at best.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: In Good Company is rated PG-13 for "some sexuality and drug references." The references are oblique or condemning, however, so I can't see anything objectionable in the movie for those of about age 10 and up. My bet is that young teens will like this movie better than either younger or older patrons, and that grown-ups will probably not care much for it at all.

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

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