Susan Sarandon is one of the screen's most gifted actresses, a fiercely intelligent artist who invests her roles with depth, compassion, wit, and humor. She has the ability to elevate even mediocre material, taking a potentially schmaltzy part, as in Stepmom, and making it totally believable. In her best films -- Atlantic City, A Dry White Season, and, most especially, Dead Man Walking -- she inhabits her roles so completely that she doesn't seem to be acting at all.
Sadly, in her latest film, Sarandon is clearly acting. Anywhere But Here, adapted from the novel by Mona Simpson, centers on the close but volatile relationship between a kooky, narcissistic, larger-than-life mother and her more levelheaded, tradition-bound daughter, played by Natalie Portman. Directed by Wayne Wang, who dealt sensitively with familial issues in such films as Smoke and The Joy Luck Club, Anywhere But Here has "Hollywood picture" written all over it. It is slick, glossy, and artificial, all of the things that a script by veteran screenwriter Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People, Julia, The Sterile Cuckoo) usually is not.
Adele August (Sarandon) is a garrulous, flirtatious, self-absorbed woman who feels stifled by small-town life in Bay City, Wisconsin, and dreams of an exciting, pampered life in Beverly Hills. Ballsy but with little common sense and less money, she ditches husband No. 2, buys a secondhand gold Mercedes, packs up her daughter, and heads for California. Fourteen-year-old Ann, who feels grounded by home and family, loves her "ordinary" existence and doesn't want to go. But her protests fall on deaf ears.
Determined to live in Beverly Hills and send Ann to the city's prestigious high school, Adele finds a small apartment in the cheap section of town. Ann makes friends quickly and settles into her new life, even while missing her friends and family back home. Although her job as a speech therapist at an inner-city school pays just enough to cover their monthly expenses, Adele would rather eat at a trendy Beverly Hills restaurant than pay the electricity bill. It is a frustrating and disruptive existence for Ann. Adele's frequently outrageous behavior is a constant source of embarrassment: She barges into expensive houses that are on the market, pretending to be looking for a place for herself and her wealthy physician husband; she checks out rooms at the opulent Beverly Hills Hotel, eyeing the good life she hopes to lead one day.
Always on the outside looking in, Adele yearns for a life she will never have, while Ann is the realist in the family, often acting more like the mother than like the daughter. Their relationship is close but difficult: Ann feels protective of her mother, yet wants to get away from her and lead her own life. Adele, on the other hand, loves her daughter but is too narcissistic and needy to let go.
Although the film is narrated by Ann, it fails to maintain a consistent point of view, moving back and forth between the two women. Part of the problem may be that the filmmakers were reluctant to make Adele too unsympathetic. Rather than seeming contradictory or layered, she is allowed to be only one adjective at a time: kooky one minute, vulnerable the next, selfish, then caring. She never seems to embody all of these qualities at once -- an unusual criticism to direct against Sarandon, who is normally so adept at portraying the complexities and inconsistencies of human behavior. Portman is impressive, but she, too, is constrained by the demands of a feel-good story.
A far better film, with a remarkably similar premise, will be opening around the country in a few weeks' time. Tumbleweeds stars British stage actress Janet McTeer, who won a Tony Award for her riveting performance in A Doll's House, and Kimberley J. Brown, an immensely talented young actress, as a mother and daughter who likewise hit the road to follow the mother's dream of a magically better life in California. Visceral but upbeat, the story seems to be unfolding in front of the viewer's eyes, by actors who never hit a false note. Tumbleweeds may lack the marquee pull of a big, glossy studio picture, but it feels real in a way Anywhere But Here can only dream about.
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