Things We Lost in the Fire

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 10/19/07 02:32:35

"Solid performances + implausible premise = DVD rental (at best)."
3 stars (Just Average)

Directed by Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier ("After the Wedding," "Brothers," "Open Hearts," "Once in a Lifetime") from a screenplay written by Allan Loeb (the forthcoming "New Amsterdam" TV series), "Things We Lost in the Fire" is a “realistic” drama about a woman and her late husband’s best friend attempting to recover from grief, loss, and, in his case, drug addiction. Given star turns by Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro, both Oscar winners, "Things We Lost in the Fire" is a sure bet to grab some attention later this year and early next year as the awards season heats up. Unfortunately, strong performances by Berry and Del Toro won’t be enough to make moviegoers and award committees from overlooking "Things We Lost in the Fire" story-based shortcomings.

Things We Lost in the Fire opens soon after the tragic death of Brian Burke (David Duchovny). In flashbacks interspersed with the funeral and the aftermath, Brian’s wife, Audrey (Halle Berry), struggles with the enormity of losing her husband. Audrey’s two children, Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and Dory (Micah Berry), are just as stunned by the loss of their father. Audrey invites Brian’s best friend, Jerry Sunborne (Benicio Del Toro), a down-and-out ex-lawyer with a drug habit, to the funeral. Audrey’s growing need for solace and companionship eventually dissolves her anger at Jerry, who she saw as an unnecessary distraction in Brian’s life. Impulsively, she invites Brian to move in to the unfinished garage where, Audrey hopes, to help Jerry clean up and get some semblance of normalcy. Audrey’s children begin to warm to Jerry as a surrogate father and friend, but Audrey’s feelings are far more complex and contradictory toward him.

Implausible, improbable, problematic, and unconvincing, Things We Lost in the Fire is all that and more (or less, depending on your perspective). It's implausibly premised on an upper-middle class woman with two children living alone agreeing to take in her late husband's substance- and alcohol-abusing friend. If she lived alone, that might be more plausible, but with two small children, her maternal instinct to protect her children from the dangers, real and possible, in letting a virtual stranger live in her close proximity and have full run of her house. Plus, it's hard to imagine a woman of Audrey's social status taking in someone of Jerry's lowered social status in, regardless of her emotional needs at the time.

Bier and Loeb use some sleight-of-hand to make the new living arrangement more acceptable to moviegoers dubious of the Things We Lost in the Fire's contrived premise: neither Audrey nor Jerry have any other friends. Audrey has family, her mother and her late husband's family, but they're not around much, meaning she doesn't have a support network in place to help her during the grieving and recovery process. Jerry, we'd assume, would commiserate with other addicts, so what would stop him from either stealing Audrey's possessions or having his friends over to party? Not much, except the needs of the Bier and Loeb to force characters from different social classes together for the duration of Things We Lost in the Fire’s running time as they move toward a trite (if, to be fair, unobjectionable) life lesson, "Accept the Good."

Sadly, all that implausibility and contrivance wastes compelling, engrossing performances from Berry and Del Toro. Berry has been criticized, not unjustly, for giving bland, uninspired performances in a series of sub-par films after her Oscar winning turn in "Monster’s Ball" (e.g., "Perfect Stranger," the "X-Men" trilogy, "Gothika," "Catwoman"). Likewise, Del Toro tends to be better than the films he’s appeared in after he won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for "Traffic" six years ago (e.g., "21 Grams," "The Hunted"). Although his mumbling speech pattern, exhausted appearance, and shuffling gait aren’t anything he hasn’t done before (e.g., "The Usual Suspects"), it’s hard to imagine another actor playing Jerry and playing him as convincingly as Del Toro does here.

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