(USA - 1995)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mare Winningham, Ted Levine, Max Perlich, John Doe, John C. Reilly
Genre: Drama
Director: Ulu Grosbard
Screenplay: Barbara Turner based on a story by Barbara Turner and Jennifer Jason Leigh
Cinematography: Jan Kiesser
Composer: Steven Soles
Runtime: 118 minutes

Jennifer Jason Leigh is the best American actress that started in the color era, and this is her best performance (exceeding the little seen gem Last Exit From Brooklyn) Aside from taking such a wide range of diverse and incredibly difficult parts (some parts could be played easily, but only if the goal wasn't for the performance to be worth mentioning), what really separates her is that she has no on screen ego. She does not care what depth she has to sink to or how unflattering she'll come across, after all it's never her, always the character she's portraying. She'll always research that character until she can become them on the screen, which is why her performances are so painstaking realistic and believable. She never wins any major awards because "making people happy' always takes precedent over what should be important, which is the believability, accuracy, realness, the generally the way the character comes to life.

This is not a movie where "a lot of things happen." In fact, it's tempting to say that "not much happens," but either would be totally missing the point because it's a character and relationship study about a main character that is incapable of getting things together, succeeding, and healing the wounds she's caused on those around her. It's also about a sister that tries her hardest to deal with this character. She can only take so much, but she can't bring herself to force her sister out of her life.

As she always does when she's in the lead role, Leigh takes the movie on her back and gives a totally engrossing, multidimensional performance. A performance that should make you feel different things about her character at different times even though it's always obvious that Sadie is a no-hoper.

Calling Sadie unlikable is misses the point to some extent because the characters and relationships in this movie are all so complex. Leigh's mother, Barbara Turner, wrote this story in a way that none of the relationships would be black and white. Sadie is the center of virtually every scene and wears her emotions on her shoulder, but with everyone else there's the spoken and the unspoken. Director Ulu Grosbard has left enough room for the viewer to interpret how everyone really feels toward Leigh.

Sadie is frustrating in the sense that no matter how much people go out of their way to help her, it's useless. Sadie is the person that will always make herself the center of attention, and will suck everyone around her dry. This character is an incredibly flawed person, but the thing is she holds that certain power over people where she's so real, so emotional, and so interesting in addition to being so f***ed up that one way or another people are drawn to her. This is where Leigh's talent really comes to the forefront because she makes the character so interesting that you can see why, as hopeless as she is, the people around Sadie can't help but accept her with her flaws and try to help her. Sure, at some point most of them reach their limit, but even when they do you can see it's tearing them up inside. Aside from her sister Georgia (Winningham), no one really has the guts to confront her on why they have to get away from her, or even how awful her singing is and how out of hand her substance abuse is.

Winningham's performance as the polar opposite sister is so impressive and worthy of supporting awards. She has the restraint and ability to be able to convey the emotions while staying in the background. That's the only way her character could credibly function because as the opposite of Leigh; she's the quiet, unassuming one that has her life totally together (aside from Leigh turning up when she's desperate and pulling her down). Even though she isn't passionate about her profession and doesn't care about fame and fortune, she is the highly successful singer because she's talented and doesn't do anything (aside from perhaps putting Leigh on stage) that would harm her career. Since she's got the dough, she's giving but look for the subtle falseness in her generosity.

The most telling portion of the movie is when she puts Leigh on stage for one song at an AIDS benefit concert, and Leigh does the longest, most emotional rendition of Van Morrison's (one of her favorite singers) 'Take Me Back.' The problem is the same as always, she's plastered, no one responds to her bizarre pre-song comments, and she sings as bad as anyone can possibly sing without sounding like they are just trying to sound awful. This song seems to go on forever, so Winningham finally reaches the point of embarrassment (and perhaps disgust) where she comes back on stage and makes it a duet so she can 'save' her sister and end this debacle. Due to the actresses, a horrible song has never been so amazing to sit through. Of course, Sadie thinks that passion and living the music is what makes for an exceptional performance, so her voice (if she even notices it sucks) isn't important because her show (and her whole life for that matter) is essentially a display of pain open to the public. In the car after Georgia's show is over, Sadie has to ask her husband Axel (Max Perlich), Georgia's husband Jake (Ted Levine), and Georgia 'was I great or was I great?' Perlich & Levine, who don't get a tremendous amount of screen time but still offer strong support, agree she was great (well, Levine says she was something so again it's open for interpretation, but to Leigh it's an agreement), but Winningham doesn't want to say anything. After being prodded, she finally can't hold back her real feelings anymore, although she still says it in the 's this what you want to here' way. The true irony of the scene is that throughout the movie, especially when Sadie got Georgia to come up and sing a duet with her at one of her performances before a few drunks by putting Georgia on the spot, Sadie had always tried to outdo Georgia and steal her thunder. That's the point of the title, although Sadie is the character that gets all the attention and thus screen time, everything she does always comes back to her sister Georgia.

*Spoiler alert*

This is a movie that doesn't have a definitive beginning and ending point. By that I mean, it's obvious that the events were going on long before we started seeing them and they'll continue long after we've left them. That's why the ending of this movie is so perfect. There's none of that it has to be happy and uplifting crap to take away so much of the power of what came before it. There's what we already knew followed by one line from Sadie that shows a small positive change in her character, but at the same time does not lead you to believe that she's poised for either a slow or sudden spiral in either direction. These sisters are who they are. This may not be a movie that you'll think is one of the greatest of all-time, but Leigh's performance and the basis of the movie itself should stick with you for a long time.




* Copyright 2001 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *