Hang 'em high!

Schroeder and Streep make clumsy co-conspirators in Before and After

I'm no fan of mob justice, but in the name of good filmmaking, I say American audiences should campaign to get the American citizenship of Barbet Schroeder revoked.

The filmmaker began his career 27 years ago in France, making a series of deliberately obscure personal dramas--two of which featured soundtracks composed entirely of Pink Floyd songs--and winning awards for his documentary work. He invaded Hollywood in 1987 with his only decent English-language film to date--Barfly--and an enthusiasm for the American studio machinery that European auteurs have exhibited since the silent era.

Since his relocation to our shores, Schroeder has given us one wildly erratic movie after another, working in genres for which he displays little understanding. Reversal of Fortune, Single White Female, and last year's inept noir remake, Kiss of Death, all featured fine performers lost in Schroeder's sluggish pacing. The man simply has no idea how to generate suspense. Some scenes end too quickly, others linger like indigestion from a cheap diner meal. Every time he manages to provoke a genuine emotion from his audience, it floats away on a river of narrative sludge.

There is a certain entertainment value to Barbet Schroeder's new exercise in pointlessness, although it's probably not what the filmmaker intended. Other members of the audience found themselves laughing at the awkward moments in Before and After, a psychological melodrama that purports to examine the gray shades of the American justice system. The film concerns the trauma suffered by the harried parents (Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson) of a 16-year-old boy (Edward Furlong) accused of bludgeoning his girlfriend on a snow-covered roadside. Schroeder and screenwriter Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs) follow the family through the investigation, arraignment, grand jury, and trial proceedings. The director aims his sights all over the place--sleazy defense lawyers, obsessive prosecutors, family members who impede the investigation out of fear for the fate of the accused--but manages to miss every target.

The biggest folly in Before and After is the way unlikely events are piled atop weird, unexplored motivations. TV and radio commercials for the film suggest the 16-year-old's guilt is kept a mystery until the end. But midway through, we discover that the kid is innocent--sort of. He and his volatile girlfriend (Allison Folland) get into a shoving match on the roadside after an argument. She then attacks him with a tire iron. In self-defense, he pushes her down and--get this--she accidentally falls face-first on a tire jack. Before and After sells this scenario with such simpleminded earnestness, you think that O.J. Simpson should contact Barbet Schroeder to represent Simpson in his civil trial.

A friend who adored the book by Rosellen Brown on which Before and After was based expressed bewilderment at the film's harshly unsympathetic portrait of the victim. In her one scene, actress Folland berates the pipsqueaky Furlong as a "fucking pussy," taunts him with the news that she is pregnant by another young man, and swings a tire iron at him. Fast-forward to Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson with horrified expressions when they learn part of the strategy prepared by their son's defense attorney (a no-nonsense Alfred Molina in the film's best performance) is to defame the victim's character as slutty and unhinged. In a drama that actually made sense, this revelation would provide a profound, intriguing moral dilemma. But Schroeder and screenwriter Tally portray the victim as...well, a slutty, unhinged bully. The filmmakers raise legitimate questions about the character assassinations routinely employed by lawyers, then turn around and don't give the dead girlfriend much character to assassinate.

Then there's Meryl Streep, who has finally found a role to match her anemic on-screen presence. I could have my critic's license revoked for speaking ill of goddess Streep, but she has always struck me as an actress who's all form and no content. Without a carefully studied accent on which to hang her characterization, she often looks stranded in front of the camera, faking her way through emotions with stock dew-eyed glances and mouth tremblings. Maybe audiences know something that snobby critical cults won't admit, because last year's The Bridges of Madison County was her first and only certifiable box-office hit in a very long career (with the possible exception of the lumbering, marginal hit Out of Africa). Clint Eastwood, a venerable marquee draw, had more to do with that film's respectable profit.

In Before and After's most hilarious leap of faith, Streep decides to sidestep her husband, son, and her son's lawyer and tell her child's story unvarnished to the grand jury. Streep is convinced that the truth will set her boy free. After all, why wouldn't a jury of 12 strangers believe the victim accidentally fell face-first on a tire jack? One imagines a sequel in which, at a second trial, the court is tearfully informed that Streep wasn't stabbed to death by her son: She walked into the knife 20 times.

It's hard not to be offended by a film that treats audiences like they were the most gullible juries in the world. Apparently Barbet Schroeder believes as long as he pretends to ponder important issues, he can sneak any number of absurd contrivances and shoddy characterizations past moviegoers. Once word gets around, ticket-buyers should sentence Schroeder, Streep, and company to the worst punishment imaginable in Hollywood--a hearty, heartfelt box-office snub.

Before and After. Hollywood Pictures. Meryl Streep, Liam Neeson, Edward Furlong. Written by Ted Tally, based on the novel by Rosellen Brown. Directed by Barbet Schroeder. Now showing.

 
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