Off the Map

Reviewed By Collin Souter
Posted 10/07/03 21:50:52

"A beautiful mess"
3 stars (Just Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2003 CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: “Off the Map” is a movie in love with the landscapes of New Mexico. Many people who have visited this state have said that the otherworldliness of it can be quite overwhelming and magical. The desert does that to some people. There can be something quite liberating, daunting and spiritually influential about being so far away from the sensory overload and vapid consumerism that permeates every facet of our lives, especially those of us who pay too much rent in the city or exist on the verge of sanity in the creepy suburbs. “Off the Map” wants to tell the story about how this major change happens to one man and how he finds his true self within the vast New Mexico landscape.

I, for one, felt lost. “Off the Map” feels all over the map. Based on a play of the same name by screenwriter Joan Ackerman, it tells the story of a family of four who live out in a commune in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico. Charley Grodon (Sam Elliot), the father, has been suffering from a mysterious, severe case of depression. His wife (Joan Allen) goes about her day as though Charley’s depression were just another chore around the house that needs doing. Their daughter, Bo (Valentina de Angelis), likes to import goodies from all over the rest of the country by writing letters of complaint to companies such as Nabisco or Nestle (so they’ll send her a whole box). The friend of the family, George (J.K. Simmons), is asked by the family to pose as a disturbed patient to a psychiatrist so he can score some anti-depressants for his ailing brother.

So far, so…not bad. The Grodon family live on under $5000 a year. They have not filed for taxes in several years, which brings us to William Gibbs (Jim True-Smart). The taxman shows up, buttoned-down and with a briefcase. He explains that the family owes about $1600 in back taxes. William gets bitten by a nasty insect and is left sick in the Grodon’s bed for weeks. He awakens with a new sense of purpose and identity in one of the most forced and unconvincing declarations of the heart ever committed to celluloid. Meanwhile, George has fallen for his psychiatrist and has yet to acquire any pills for Charley.

On one hand, we have a movie about a family coping with a mysterious case of depression, but because of their reluctance to join the real world, they must try and figure out a way to combat the illness. On the other, we have a man whose spiritual reawakening ends up changing the art world. At the center of it all lies a precocious sitcom kid who has all the witty lines of dialogue and every answer to every situation. She wants to get out of the commune, but other than a few slight acts of desperation—one being that she uses a good portion of her saved pennies to buy William an appointment book so she can impress him into hiring her to be his secretary—I just didn’t see any signs of true unhappiness. When she demands to attend a public school in the fall, her mother instantly agrees to it. Problem solved.

Actor Campbell Scott directed “Off the Map” and has a clear sense of the mysteries behind the American landscape. He gives us some amazing vista shots in witch the horizon has a vague existence as well as clear view of just how enormous the land can feel when seeing it from the perspective of a dwarfed human being. Accompanied by Gary DeMichele’s unique, simplistic score and Juan Ruiz Anchia’s lush cinematography, Scott and his team have successfully brought this desert paradise to life.

The problems lie in Ackerman’s screenplay. Scott says he saw the play 10 years ago in a little theater in New York and fell in love with it. “Off the Map” could very well work as a play and perhaps if one goes in knowing where the material originated, one might be more forgiving of its over-written dialogue and voice-over narration (from Bo as an adult). Nevertheless, I sat watching “Off the Map” not buying a word of it. The dialogue sounded way too precious and the drama came off as muddled and unfocused. It might have worked better if the story had begun with William and followed his transition from soul-sick accountant to rejuvenated artist. Just who is this movie really about?

There seems to be a great movie waiting to get made here about that very thing. But “Off the Map” still lives in a world where an unaffordable sailboat can help bring an end to clinical depression. Maybe I’m a bit too cynical in these matters or maybe I just haven’t spent enough time in the desert to fully appreciate the whimsy. I have never been to New Mexico, but the movie—story and characters aside—paints its majesty with such extraordinary colors that I wish I had been. Many people in the audience for this movie expressed how it accurately conveyed the spiritual intensity of the land. I don’t doubt it. I just wish I got that same sense of spiritual intensity from the characters who inhabited it.

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