Runaway Wife, Reluctant Daughter … You Might Lose Your Lunch

Runaway Wife, Reluctant Daughter

Susan Sarandon, I am happy to report, did not die of cancer, join a nunnery, send anyone to the electric chair or drive a car over a cliff with Geena Davis. Her honesty, conviction and three-dimensional way of creating an aura of total reality on the screen just make it seem that way. This is a relief, because her very sense of aliveness has made it possible for her to now tackle one of her most challenging and mesmerizing roles, in Wayne Wang’s vibrant new film Anywhere but Here . Based on the smart, acclaimed novel by Mona Simpson, this is a coming-of-age story about a runaway wife and her teenage daughter, both of whom have growing pains. Rarely has the bench-press burn from the tenuous truce forged between American mothers and daughters been dramatized with such perception.

When restless, impulsive Adele August (Ms. Sarandon) uproots her bright, reluctant and disapproving daughter Ann (Natalie Portman) and drags her on a cross-country motor trip from Wisconsin to start a new life in Beverly Hills, the roles of parent and child often find themselves reversed. Adele is a flashy drama queen in pedal pushers and pink Lolita sunglasses with gypsy feet and a terror of growing up; Ann is a conservative teenager longing for a normal mother and a more conventional life style who can’t grow up fast enough. Oblivious to logic, the first thing Adele does upon arriving in Los Angeles is park the flashy secondhand Mercedes she cannot afford at the Beverly Hills Hotel and check into a $1,200-a-night suite. Bankrupt, she is forced to settle for a discount room at a Travelodge hotel.

Maddeningly upbeat, seeing the bright side of everything, relentlessly sunny and cheerful in the face of adversity, Adele could drive a standup comic around the bend, while Ann turns glum, depressed and hopelessly homesick. Adele finds work as a schoolteacher and a cheap apartment far from Beverly Hills, confident that a glamorous life is just around the corner, while Ann dreams of escaping her exasperatingly flamboyant mother to a place “anywhere but here.” Jockeying for control in each other’s lives, they thrust and parry like caring but determined duelists. When the mother’s failures and disappointments finally reach combustion, it’s the child who has to become the guardian, baby sitter, best girlfriend and even the parent. But when Adele’s fear of losing her child and best buddy jeopardizes Ann’s chances for college, it is finally the mother who makes the supreme unselfish sacrifice to give her daughter a future.

Here is an arresting story of a girl on the verge of womanhood who doesn’t want the job of daughter anymore and a woman who doesn’t want to give up the job of mother. Both have strengths and weaknesses, and the best thing about the funny, intelligent script by veteran screenwriter Alvin Sargent is the way it balances the equation with humor and pathos. With two marvelous performances at the center of the piece, Anywhere but Here is a movie made up of treasured moments that are precious, truthful and pure.

Recovering from her wooden debacle in Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace , Ms. Portman proves she can really act and looks like a dewy young Audrey Hepburn. Ms. Sarandon moves through the film in a kind of trance of self-delusion: drunk, angry, laughing, regretful, desirous, hurt, outrageous, giving and finessing every emotional conflict with a lovely felicity. The film provides her with a task as difficult as motherhood itself: to make contact with herself among others, and to maintain that contact throughout the film, moving carefully in step with her daughter’s parallel experiences while maintaining an identity of her own. It’s quite an accomplishment, and the skill and artistry with which she succeeds is one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences of the year.

You Might Lose Your Lunch

For audiences craving another cardiovascular workout with the visceral, tell-me-what-happens-next-because-my-eyes-are-closed impact of The Silence of the Lambs , I have rarely encountered a horrorfest more amiable and eager to deliver than The Bone Collector . If you lust after the same kind of cheap literary thrills I do, you have probably read the nerve-frying novel by Jeffery Deaver; he’s from the Thomas Harris-James Patterson fright school. But while directors often make a mess of screen translations, Australian director Phillip Noyce helmed this one with maximum gruesomeness. It’s one wild ride on a scenic railway and on a few of the turns you might lose your lunch.

New York is in the grip of another homicidal maniac who kills victims of all ages and both sexes, without apparent reason, leaving behind a series of bizarre clues like pieces of some satanic jigsaw puzzle. Denzel Washington plays a brilliant but depressed paraplegic forensics expert who tries to put the pieces together and solve the crimes from his bed while planning his own suicide. Surrounded by pals from the force and a loyal, warmhearted nurse (Queen Latifah) who is equally adept at bedpans and computers, he’s something of a miracle man, but for actual hands-on help at the actual crime scenes, he recruits a reluctant, hard-boiled and inexperienced cop (feisty Angelina Jolie).

Before her hostility melts and love changes everything, he orchestrates the grim details of her duties from his paralyzed position while she does all the dirty work, and we find ourselves on a guided tour of abandoned slaughterhouses, forbidden sewers and deserted subway stations where the serial killer’s victims have been scalded to death by boiling steam, eaten alive by rats and filleted to the bone like sea bass. It’s only a matter of time before the psycho turns up at the hero’s apartment to reap the ultimate revenge.

New York is photographed in lurid, midnight-blue clarity, every rain-drenched red light suitable for a gallery exhibit. While Mr. Washington never disappoints, he is restricted to a horizontal position, acting the whole thing with sweat and facial muscles. It’s more of a challenge than you think; he gets more out of a changing expression than most actors can milk from a 10-page monologue.

Elaine Stritch Sails Again

In one of those miracles that only happen in Manhattan, crusty, larky, indomitable Elaine Stritch is celebrating Noël Coward’s centennial birthday year by re-creating her original starring role in a concert version of the 1961 Broadway and London musical Sail Away at Carnegie Hall, and everybody who is anybody is fighting to get in. It closes Nov. 13, and if you miss it, you might as well move to Staten Island.

Sail Away went down in the history books as a titanic tin-plated turkey, but it turned Ms. Stritch into a sophisticated theater legend, and even with reading glasses and a book in her talons, she can still dazzle. In the kind of downstage, center-spot role tailored for stars in the good old days before ugly music, body mikes and concept overkill, this star turned Sail Away into a real Broadway clambake and brought her own horseradish. As Mimi Paragon, the overworked but indefatigable cruise director on a Cunard liner with a Noël Coward song to fit every port of call, she relentlessly struggles with a colorful assortment of passengers and crew, moppet monsters running amok on the shuffleboard deck, dyspeptic dowagers, blossoming lovebirds, snooty aristocrats, overzealous sailors and American tourists who drop their dentures down the loo.

As bland as the show remains, it is positively refreshing and terrific fun. What a pleasure to rediscover real songs-the lilting and ageless title tune (kept alive by Mabel Mercer long after the show closed) as well as ballads in the ruminative Noël Coward style such as “Something Very Strange” and “Later Than Spring,” and witty show-stopping numbers such as “Useful Phrases” (in which Ms. Stritch exposes the pointless, maddening linguistics in a foreign language guide book) and a rousing 11 o’clock finale Ethel Merman would kill for called “Why Do the Wrong People Travel (When the Right People Stay Back Home?).”

The original orchestrations and dance arrangements by Irwin Kostal and Peter Matz sound years ahead of their time, the 23-piece Carnegie Hall orchestra gleefully swings, and director Gerald Gutierrez has crowded the stage with a cast of Broadway veterans who really keep Ms. Stritch on her toes. Marian Seldes steals the show as a pretentious author of purple prose, Gordon and Jane Connell are hilarious as “the Bronxville Darby and Joan,” a deceptively darling old couple who despise each other, the always excellent Jane White exudes authority and class as a poisonous society matron whose millionaire son (Jerry Lanning) finds late-blooming romance with the embattled cruise director just in time for a happy ending.

Sharing this rare opportunity to watch Ms. Stritch’s genius for comic timing and hear her world-weary way with lyrics, the audience leaves Sail Away revitalized, as only an ocean voyage can make you feel. Or a stylish Noël Coward musical.