John Sayles has always been pretty up-front with his attitude toward his cinematic endeavors; he sees his films as opportunities for character-driven stories rather than stylistic flourishes. The feeling with his more-assured films, such as Lone Star (1996) and Limbo (1999), is that what visual acuity they have is a side effect of years of honing his storytelling abilities.
Sayles’ earlier films tended to be stilted and overwritten, but at the same time original and refreshingly literate. As a writer-director (and previously a novelist) he shifted the traditional emphasis of low-budget ingenuity from a personal sense of mise-en-scène to a well-crafted script. When the story was compelling enough, which it often was, the four-square shooting style didn’t seem to matter. By the time of the two films mentioned above, his attitude toward the purely cinematic had opened up to where he could effectively convey a resonant setting for the personal dramas that were still his main interest, offering up a hotly unforgiving Texas and a beautifully desolate Alaska.
It’s in this context that Sunshine State, the latest in what now stands as a trilogy of films whose titles refer both to a state and a state of mind (albeit in this case ironically), seems like a step backward. It has some of the virtues we’ve come to expect from Sayles — a subdued realism, nuanced dialogue, especially at moments of emotional crux — and plotting that’s intricate without being baroque. But it also has a few of the old vices, mainly a static and underdeveloped sense of place and a tendency to burden his characters with too much verbal exposition. The setting is Florida, the fictitious Plantation Island with its two communities, the mostly white Delrona Beach and the mostly black Lincoln Beach. But it seems so nondescript that the threat of land developers — the larger plot that encases the smaller ones — doesn’t seem like much of a threat. The place appears to be dying, and a few strip malls and tacky resort hotels could only add a little beneficial panache.
Within this story of supposedly rapacious progress are two major plot strands and several smaller ones. The Delrona Beach strand centers around Marly Temple (Edie Falco), the world-weary owner of a small restaurant who views the developers’ buyout offers with increasing ambivalence. Marly has the slightly shrunken look and quietly sarcastic manner of someone who has gone down a path of increasingly diminished expectations. Her current affair with a pro golfer is going nowhere and she’s ripe for the attentions of another floater (as opposed to loser), Jack Meadows (Timothy Hutton), a landscape designer whose association with the bad guys is more marginal than it seems at first. Falco, best known as the loyal but feisty Carmela on “The Sopranos,” signals that there’s still signs of life amid her dried-up enthusiasm; Hutton, whose former boyishness has grown puffy but not sodden, conveys the anxiety of someone who wants to be decent. Their story is the film’s most compelling — you really wish something good would happen to these people.
The Lincoln Beach strand is more conventionally melodramatic and, as a result, less interesting. This is the story of Desiree Perry (Angela Bassett), who left town while still a teenager, pregnant and unwed, to pursue a career as an actress. Returning now with a husband and a career that has stalled at the infomercial level, she’s come looking for some closure with her still-censorious mother (Mary Alice).
Coincidentally, a returning local hero (Tom Wright), once a pro-football hotshot and now a celebrity shill for the land developers, arrives around the same time as Desiree. If you can’t guess that he’s the father of her child and that he was unaware that she was ever pregnant, then you might find this part more interesting than I did.
That’s the bare bones, which Sayles fleshes out with a half-dozen or so distinct but distinctly secondary characters — such as the wise Dr. Lloyd (Bill Cobbs, who’s starting to rival Morgan Freeman as the movies’ most sagacious African-American) and Gordan Clapp as the distraught county commissioner whose repeated suicide attempts make for a macabre running gag.
There’s much to admire here (e.g., all of the acting) despite some contrived plot turns. But the old balance between the didactic and the dramatic that runs through Sayles’ oeuvre goes askew, tipping toward the former, and the 140-minute running time is felt in full.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.