Friday, December 10, 2010

Reverend's Reviews: Trouble in the Garden

American writer Ernest Hemingway produced an acclaimed body of work prior to his suicide in 1961, including classics A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls. He remains revered as a man's writer, weaving stories out of his military experiences during World War I and his enjoyment of such traditionally masculine pursuits as fishing, bullfighting and big-game hunting. Hemingway won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature.

His book The Garden of Eden was published posthumously in 1986 and now serves as the source for a movie — appropriately dubbed Hemingway's Garden of Eden — opening today in Los Angeles and New York from Roadside Attractions. The novel is regarded as at least semi-autobiographical, which makes the bisexual love triangle at the plot's center all the more intriguing. Unfortunately, just as Adam and Eve ran into trouble in the titular glen, so do Hemingway and the movie.

David and Catherine Bourne (played by Jack Huston of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse and Mena Suvari, unforgettable as the object of Kevin Spacey's desire in American Beauty) are a wealthy newlywed couple enjoying an extended honeymoon in Europe during the Roaring '20's. They fill their days with nude sunbathing, cocktails and sex that, at Catherine's initiation, soon becomes adventurous. After cutting her long hair, she persuades David to "be the girl" during their lovemaking sessions.

David, alas, loses interest in this game and turns increasingly to his writing. He begins recounting his childhood memories of his father, who was a sometimes-violent elephant hunter in Africa (the transitions to dramatized segments from David's novel are laughably jarring). In the meantime, Catherine becomes involved with a local woman named Marita (the lovely Caterina Murino, best known to American audiences as Solange in the Bond re-boot Casino Royale). Catherine introduces Marita to David with visions of a ménage à trois in her mind. As David becomes interested in Marita exclusively, Catherine grows unhinged. Drunken tirades and burnt manuscripts follow closely behind.

A veteran director (John Irvin of Dogs of War and Widow's Peak, among others), the attractive lead performers and some stunning settings cannot bring credibility to this inherently stilted story. The talent involved here is sizable, including internationally acclaimed screenwriter James Scott Linville and supporting actors Matthew Modine, Richard E. Grant and, in her English-language debut, Almodóvar favorite Carmen Maura (who is tragically under-utilized). All involved obviously have good intentions but are done in by the hopelessly dated source material. Hemingway's Garden of Eden veers toward camp at times — mostly thanks to Suvari, who gets juicy lines like "We don't have to live life like normal people" — but, perhaps to its detriment, never crosses over.

Moving to the temptation-ridden concrete jungle that is New York City, All Good Things (also opening today in LA) traffics in similar topics of wealth, sex and betrayal; it relates the true-life story behind the most significant unsolved mystery in the metropolis's history. In 1982, after ten years of marriage to the heir of Manhattan's greatest real estate dynasty, Katie Marks disappeared. According to witnesses, Katie's husband David had been growing increasingly abusive but he has never been tried for her murder.

Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst are excellent as David and Katie, and it's great to see Dunst in a significant adult role post-Spider-Man (remember how impressive she was while still a young girl in 1994's Interview with the Vampire and Little Women?) As Katie tellingly says to David at one point, "I've never been closer to anyone, and I don't know you at all." Gay fans of Gosling, a previous Oscar nominee for Half Nelson and a potential contender this year for the controversial Blue Valentine, will be happy to know that he not only sports 1970's short shorts in All Good Things but also has a scene in which he is clad in wet tighty-whities (of which you can see a tantalizing glimpse in the film's trailer) as well as several scenes in drag!

Frank Langella is good if one-note in the heavy role of Sanford Marks, David's overbearing father. We're told Sanford owned "half of Times Square" during his heyday, and profited handsomely off the seedy hotels and massage parlors that dominated the district during the pre-Giuliani 1970's and 80's. SNL's Kristin Wiig is also on hand, somewhat incongruously, as the cokehead girlfriend of an associate of David's. The great Philip Baker Hall makes a brief but effective appearance as the apparent hit man in the murder of David's longtime friend and confidante, Deborah Lehrman (David did stand trial in this case, but served only nine months in prison for the "unlawful disposal" of the hit man's body, whose death David claimed was in self-defense).

All Good Things is thoroughly engrossing but somewhat frustrating in the end, only because viewers are denied knowledge of the truth as much as the key figures involved in the real-life case have been. Effectively directed by Andrew Jarecki, who previously helmed the Academy Award-nominated documentary Capturing the Friedmans, it is nevertheless a worthwhile exploration of the darkness that can inhabit the human soul beneath the most attractive guises.

Reverend's Ratings:
Hemingway's Garden of Eden: C-
All Good Things: B

UPDATE: All Good Things is available on DVD and Blu-ray and Hemingway's Garden of Eden is available on DVD now from

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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