Written, Directed and Edited by John Sayles
With Edie Falco, Timothy Hutton, Angela Bassett, Mary
Alice, Mary Steenburgen, Gordon Clapp, Alan King, Bill Cobb,
Marc Blucas, Ralph Waite, Jane Alexander, and James McDaniel
Rated PG-13; 141 minutes. From Sony Pictures Classics.
John Sayles gives voice to the people that most movies ignore.
When you go on vacation and check into a beachfront motel,
do you stop and think about the stressed-out, pretty but faded-looking
woman behind the front desk? Who she is, where she came from,
how she got here at this particular time? John Sayles does.
Edie Falco, miles from her angry, polished Mafia wife on
"The Sopranos," is just such a woman, and she's
one of the centers of Sunshine State, Sayles' latest
film. The movie has several lightly interwoven storylines
that parallel and reflect each other, and these generous,
multiple viewpoints of a community in transition are both
Sunshine State's strength and its weakness.
If you've seen a Sayles film before, especially the ones
that look at a whole town's joys and sorrows (City of Hope,
Lone Star), you'll understand what I mean. Sayles is the
most democratic of filmmakers, in all senses: Everybody gets
the chance to say their piece in his movies, and he rarely
plays favorites by indicating that one story or character
is much more important than another.
Sayles has made movies that focus more tightly on individual
stories, notably Brother from Another Planet (with
Joe Morton as an outer space alien/runaway slave who lands
in the ultimate alien hideaway, New York City's Harlem) and
Lianna, a sensitive and funny lesbian love story. His
early masterwork Return of the Secaucus Seven (the
model for Lawrence Kasdan's safer, more commercial Big
Chill) struck a good balance of the group-individual tension
in Sayles' work, charting the reunion of a group of campus
radicals without losing sight of the individual dramas they
As the title indicates, Sunshine State is about Florida.
The community in transition, Delrona Beach, has already been
partially developed, with a gated community of McMansions
threatening to spread and engulf the older homeowners and
businesses. There's also conflict between the mostly black
community of Lincoln Beach and the whiter Delrona Beach. The
old vs. new theme also plays out in personal dramas between
adult children and their parents, as well as in the comic
backdrop of the "Buccaneer Days" celebration - a
ready-made dollop of Disneyfied "history," complete
with eye-patched, parrot-wearing pirates walking the plank
into a swimming pool (supplied by local merchants eager for
a free plug).
Falco's character, Marly Temple, runs the Sea-Vue Motel and
restaurant. She's too smart for her job and clear-sighted
enough to know exactly how trapped she is in it. The motel
was started by her father (Ralph Waite), now nearly blind
but far from docile. Waite (the father from "The Waltons")
is really a marvelous actor - his monologues, about the good
old days before segregation ended and environmentalism spoiled
his ability to make a buck, could be stagy or sentimental,
but Waite uses his oracular voice to make them sound fresh.
Another fascinating parent-child relationship is played out
by angry, regretful Angela Bassett and the fabulous Mary Alice.
Bassett's character, Desiree, hasn't been back to Lincoln
Beach since her teenage pregnancy made her status-protecting
mother send her out of town. Her dreams of glory as an actress
have fizzled into the career twilight of infomercials, although
she has returned with a good-looking, successful husband ("NYPD
Blue"'s James McDaniel). The scenes with Bassett and
Alice, both stoked to the boiling point with past grudges,
are intense yet restrained.
Sayles also gives breathing space to two other fine actresses.
Jane Alexander, Marly's mother and Bassett's old acting teacher,
puts on a grande dame Southern accent without losing her stage-trained
diction. Sayles also gives Alexander, in real life the former
chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts, a sly joke.
Near the movie's end, she displays hitherto unknown negotiating
skills with a bumbling developer's representative and then
explains with a smile that she has, after all, successfully
run a non-profit theater for 25 years.
Mary Steenburgen, as the community leader who stage-manages
Buccaneer Days, could have been a caricature of simple-minded
boosterism. But in one devastating shot, Sayles stays on Steenburgen
while the local beauty pageant winner presents a prize to
the tourists who have won the bogus scavenger hunt. Steenburgen
shows the hurt and pain of someone who craves the spotlight
herself and knows she will never be appreciated for the work
she does, foolish as it might seem.
So does Sunshine State work as a movie? Many individual
scenes work beautifully, especially those with Falco's Marly
and her budding relationship with landscape architect Timothy
Hutton. But the movie's themes stay just that, themes. You
can see Sayles' effort in tying them carefully to one character
or another's story. The ending is especially unsatisfying,
though its dry, ironic tone fits in with the rest of the film.
Another problem is the simplistic view of corporations vs.
the "little people." Sayles' generosity to his characters
doesn't extend to those greedy capitalists and their lackeys:
the higher up a character is in the economic food chain, the
less sympathetic and rounded he is. Miguel Ferrer and Sam
McMurray play two conniving corporate sharks that might as
well have big "G for Greedy" slogans stitched onto
their shirts. Ferrer's character talks about the Sea-Vue Motel
as the "soft underbelly" of the commercial area,
ripe for invasion, and he's painted as so evil that we take
it as a matter of course that he's bribing the pathetic town
councilman played by Gordon Clapp.
Now understand: I've spent years in the corporate world and
there's very little I'd put past them, up to and including
murder and child pornography, if it would help the bottom
line. But I'm also not naïve enough to believe that "little"
automatically means "good," or that the "little
people" are the only ones with souls (or soul). And when
a movie stacks the deck so blatantly against any kind of corporate
activity (is all development bad? Or just new development?),
it makes any type of realistic argument nearly impossible.
I don't think Sayles is that unsophisticated. But he doesn't
have the directorial skill to balance his broadsides against
corporate rapaciousness with the interesting, human stories
he has concocted. Sunshine State is an actor's showcase
and a heartfelt film, but it's a less-than-satisfying experience
for the viewer.