by Todd LaPlace
My first exposure to “The Laramie Project” was through a theater company in Ohio. It was a small production, with a cast of eight actors playing all 50-some roles. Even jumping back and forth between supportive, antagonistic and indifferent, all eight managed to perfectly capture the spirit of the play and the real emotions behind it. As a movie, “The Laramie Project” misses most of that spirit. The story is still genuinely strong, but while the play felt real, the movie seems false. I feel like I’m watching fiction, when I should be watching reality.In theory, “The Laramie Project” may be the perfect movie. There are, of course, great movies that are pure popcorn entertainment, but “Laramie” is different. The story, based on a play of the same name, never deals directly with the tragedy of Matthew Shepard’s murder, but interacts with the situation around the tragedy. The Tectonic Theater Project, a theater company founded by Moises Kaufman, also the film’s director, conducted more than 200 interviews with the people of Laramie, Wyoming shortly after the attack and around the time of both trials. The entire play and screenplay is a compilation of quotes from those interviews, which gets closer to the tragedy than any depiction of Matt himself ever would have. It’s a story, even four years after the incident, that needs to be told, as the issues of gay rights continue to be at the forefront of a national debate.
"Laramie sparkles, but “Laramie” doesn’t."
With all that said, “The Laramie Project” may be an important movie, but it’s not a great one. The film turns the whole situation into an overwrought melodrama. The film is filled with excessive landscape shots and quick cuts and layered shots that do little more than fictionalize the story. During the trials, the courtrooms are filled with the townspeople interviewed, even though many have little connection to the case outside of also being gay. It’s possible, of course, that they were there, but through it all, the scenes still feel false. The film does a disservice to the Tectonic Theater Project, Kaufman, the play and, most of all, Matt, because all are worth more than this movie gives them credit for.
A big part of the problem is the star-studded cast that litters every scene with this false melodrama. When the film dramatizes the interview with Matt Galloway, a bartender at the Fireside Bar, the place where Matt met up with accused killers Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, we don’t see a bartender. We don’t see the last bystander that saw Matt alive. We see “Dawson’s Creek’s” Pacey Witter. We see Joshua Jackson. We don’t see the limo driver that took Matt to gay bars in Fort Collins, Colorado. We see Steve Buscemi. The exact same statements can be said for Christina Ricci, Janeane Garofalo, Camryn Manheim, Laura Linney, Mark Webber, Ben Foster, Terry Kinney, Amy Madigan, Jeremy Davies, Clea DuVall, Nestor Carbonell, Dylan Baker and Peter Fonda. None of the actors turn in bad performances. On the contrary, all of them, especially Ricci, Madigan and Davies, are genuinely gifted actors, especially in this film. There is an honest sense of deep-seeded connection; these actors want to get this story told as much as anyone, but they’re not the ones to tell it. The talent may have given the film an extra boost and, hopefully, a few more viewers, but the whole affair sacrificed quality in order to get there. The movie is good, but the play is great. “The Laramie Project” deserved better.There’s a line in “The Laramie Project” that perfectly demonstrates why the movie is so important. Real Wyoming resident Murdock Cooper said, “I'm not excusing their actions, but it made me feel better because it was partially Matthew Shepard’s fault and partially the guys who did it ... you know, maybe it’s fifty-fifty.” If the movie can change one person’s beliefs, it was worth making. I just wonder how many more people may have been affected if it had been made well.
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originally posted: 03/21/06 12:32:19