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The Shipping News
Reviewed by Dennis Morton

If you were to send out a rescue craft, somewhere roughly equidistant between a Hallmark card and Annie Proulx's novel you might find Lasse Hallstrom's new movie "The Shipping News". It would be floating handsomely in placid waters, shrouded in not quite eerie fog.
Imagine Annie Proulx on Prozac and you'll have a sense of the terrain this film occupies. That's perhaps unfair. Prozac has helped many people, and "The Shipping News" isn't difficult to sit through. And I like Lasse Hallstrom. But as an adaptation of Proulx's book, this film fails. 
The script was written by Robert Nelson Jacobs, who also wrote the screenplay for Hallstrom's last movie, "Chocolate", a trifling truffle of a film. Sadly, "The Shipping News" suffers from the same fate. It's not quite smarmy, but it's just too sweet. 
Of course, it's easy to make the arguement that a film is not a book and that any attempt to judge the film as if it were, is invideous. Generally, I buy that notion. But when the film is promoted as if it were the book, that argument pales.
Nevertheless, let's look at the movie as if it weren't based on anything Annie Proulx ever wrote. Let's look at it just as a movie. On that basis, it stacks up better than most Hollywood films. 
It has a coherent narrative structure. It's economically told. It's slightly quirky. There are several fine actors who acquit themselves well, especially Judi Dench. And the cinematography is more than competent. In short, like all of Hallstrom's films, "The Shipping News" is well made. Probably, it will do well at the box office.
So what's my problem with it?
Well, for starters, I did read the novel, and liked it, and can't erase my memory of how the novel made me feel. Proulx's book is a darker tale. In her novels and stories, life is often tragic. Cosmic excrement may happen, but it's never an excuse to quit the game. Her characters are survivors and humor is often the only leavening agent they can afford. This is not to say that Hallstrom's "Shipping News" is without humor. 
It is to say that notwithstanding a kitchenfull of fine ingredients, somehow, the recipe is off. The result is a well made movie that simply fails to move me. It fails to make me feel. And that, for me, is the primary requirement of art. It makes us feel. We don't have to like what we feel, but we are not unmoved in its presence. 
Alas, "The Shipping News" is a good looking movie with no real center, no power to transform us. I'm having a hard time figuring out why. At this point, after two viewings, the best I can come up with is Kevin Spacey, and the adequate but uninspiring script by Robert Nelson Jacobs.
"The Shipping News" finally answers the question many have been asking about Spacey: can he play anything but an archly ironic character. The answer is - he tries to, in "The Shipping News", but he misses the boat. He seems to have swallowed a frog, or the oceanic equivalent. His voice is always on the verge of a staticcy gruffness. And his face a bit too sad. His performance, like Russel Crowe's in "A Beautiful Life", just a smidgen over the top. 
As for the script, well, there's not really an embarrassing moment in it. In fact, there are clever moments, but they don't add up to the emotional wallop that a really good script provides. 
All said, I wouldn't attempt to discourage you from checking this film out, but I might suggest you check it out of your favorite, locally owned video store, a few months down the line.
For The Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.

Copyright Dennis Morton 2002