Sunshine State

Review by Adam Blair

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 play out.

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.

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