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Things We Lost in the Fire
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Movie Isn't Much But Benicio Is On Fire"
3 stars

Things We Lost In the Fire” is one of those films for which the question “Is it worth seeing?” is harder to answer than usual. On the one hand, it is a shallow and fairly unconvincing bit of melodramatic Oscar bait that is nowhere near as profound or moving as it thinks it is. On the other hand, shoehorned in amongst the otherwise hard-to-swallow plot details and obscure character motivations is one of the best and most memorable performances that you are likely to see on a movie screen this year. As a result, I am in a bit of a quandary–do I recommend that you see it even though it has many serious flaws or do I suggest giving it a pass even though doing so will cause you to miss that aforementioned performance? Hopefully by the end of this review, I will have figured out that answer for myself.

Halle Berry stars as Audrey Burke, a wife and mother who, as the film opens, has just lost her husband, Steven (David Duchovny), in a stupid and senseless murder. Reeling from her loss and unsure of what to do next, she goes through the next few days in a daze that is only broken when she realizes just before the funeral that she has inadvertently neglected to inform Steven’s best friend, Jerry Sunborne (Benicio Del Toro), of his passing. Well, perhaps it wasn’t that inadvertent after all–Jerry has spent the last few years in a heroin-induced fog and Steven’s refusal to give up on him had always been a serious bone of contention between him and Audrey. For unknown reasons–perhaps as a way of honoring her husband and keeping his memory alive or perhaps because there is no movie if she doesn’t–Audrey decides to finally reach out to Jerry and invites him to move in with her and her two kids.

Jerry accepts and before too long, he begins to straighten out his life for good–he cleans up, begins going to 12-step meetings and begins studying to become a real estate agent. That is all well and good in Audrey’s eyes but when he inadvertently begins to fill the shoes once worn by Steven (such as realizing exactly where the older kid might have gone to when she doesn’t turn up for school and getting the younger son to dunk his head underwater while swimming), she takes great umbrage and kicks him out of the house, an action that sends him spiraling out of control and forces Audrey to finally confront her loss if she and her family are to have any chance of getting on with their lives.

My central problem with “Things We Lost In the Fire” is simple enough–I didn’t believe in Allan Loeb’s screenplay for a single second. There is no way that a character like Audrey, no matter how confused and grief-stricken she might be, would willingly decide to invite a strung-out junkie that she has had nothing but complete mistrust and contempt for to live with her and her children. And since the entire film hinges on this particular decision, that means that it is impossible to believe anything that subsequently happens as well. Although it comes advertised as a searingly realistic drama, the film is virtually indistinguishable from a hokey daytime soap opera–we get melodramatic speeches (“Am I ever going to be happy? Am I ever going to feel beautiful?”), plot contrivances and an over-reliance on close-ups that are constantly being deployed to underline the emotional nuances of scenes that wouldn’t have needed them had then been better written. What makes these false moments stand out even more are the rare times in which director Susanne Bier (the Danish director of “Brothers” and “After the Wedding” making her Hollywood debut) does hit upon a vein of realistic behavior–an extended dinner party sequence towards the end in which the various characters are prodded by an outsider (Alison Lohman) to really talk about Steven has a warmth and humanity to it that makes it stick out like a sore thumb in comparison to the rest of the proceedings.

However, there is one element to “Things We Lost In the Fire” that does work spectacularly well and that is the central performance by Benicio Del Toro as Jerry. On the surface, the part sounds like one of those roles tailor-made for someone angling for an Oscar–through the course of the film, his character gets to get stoned, go through painful withdrawals and relapses and come to terms with things–but he never plays up these moments with the kind of attention-calling moves that look good as clips on talk shows but which tend to ring hollow in the context of the actual story. Instead, he plays the character closer to the vest and while we never get any scenes that painfully explain to us who he was and how he came to throw his life away, we nevertheless get the sense of a real person going through deep and profound changes whenever he is on the screen. In the past, Del Toro has given a variety of bold, high-wire performances but with the possible exception of his work in “Traffic,” I can’t recall one that cuts as deep as his work here. It is a brilliant bit of acting–it actually cuts so close to the bone that the word “acting” somehow sound demeaning in discussing it–that will soon go down as one of the high-water marks of an already remarkable career and while the film itself is too flawed to warrant a complete recommendation in the end, those who are willing and able to ignore those flaws in order to witness the brilliance of his work might want to give it a chance after all.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16660&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/19/07 00:22:29
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/19/08 mr.mike As Ant said , flawed but overall thumbs up. 4 stars
4/13/08 ivy espiritu superb, worth watching 5 stars
4/04/08 stephanie willis loved Bernicio's understated perfomance - just the right tone 4 stars
3/18/08 Ant Flawed, but decent feature. Del Toro delivers great performance!!! 3 stars
3/07/08 Neznamo Excellent performances, sensual, emotionally moving 4 stars
1/25/08 Anna Amazing film, I really understood their battle 5 stars
12/13/07 William Goss Exists for precious little reason outside of a pre-fashioned acting showcase. 3 stars
11/02/07 Kat I loved this movie! Went straight to the ugly cry 5 stars
10/20/07 Private Organic, strong performances and well shot. 4 stars
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  19-Oct-2007 (R)
  DVD: 04-Mar-2008



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