Sunshine State
Starring: Edie Falco, Angela Bassett, Timothy Hutton, James McDaniel, Mary Steenburgen
Director:

John Sayles

Writing credits: John Sayles
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics * 141 minutes
Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language, a sexual reference and thematic elements
  (US 2002)

My father lives in a gated community in Florida. It's a lovely place, really, with palm trees and well-manicured St. Augustine grass in a pristine shade of green everywhere, and dogs and inebriated teenage girls cruising around on Saturday night at two in the morning singing My Heart Will Go On. Every house looks out on a little waterway in the backyard that's visible from a screened, mosquito-proof patio the size of the entaire first floor of my house. The houses are lovely -- light and airy, with double sliding doors to the lanai that beckon you to come outside and sit staring out into space for hours on end with nary a care in the world. The community has a clubhouse and two pools, and is surrounded by a sidewalk that makes for great powerwalking. And all the houses are pretty much the same, so if you get really, really drunk and can't read the street signs, good luck finding your way home. It's a completely manufactured environment, but every time I go there, I feel a little like a horny guy getting a lapdance from a stripper with huge silicone hooters -- I know it's fake, but I like it anyway.

A community like this is the vision of the developers who lurk around the periphery of the two-and-a-half-hour social commentary marathon that is John Sayles' SUNSHINE STATE. Sayles is the most earnest of filmmakers, and it's no small miracle that this latest effort is not only tolerable, but enjoyable outside of the issues it professes to address.

The film is set in two beach communities on the same fictional Florida island. Lincoln Beach is a pre-Civil-Rights era beach community in which middle to upper middle class black people owned beachfront houses and restaurants and held cotillions. The experience of this community is embodied in prodigal daughter Desiree Stokes (Angela Bassett), who has returned home with her new anesthesiologist husband (James McDaniel) to visit the mother (Mary Alice) who sent her away as a pregnant teenager many years before. Desiree's already-strained relationship with her mother is exacerbated by the fact that the older woman is patiently and lovingly raising a grandnephew (Alex Lewis) who is an arsonist. This part of the story is particularly compelling because it posits a viewpoint -- articulated by an older black man (Bill Cobbs) -- that is almost universally regarded as heresy these days: that in some ways, life was better in Lincoln Beach before the civil rights struggle led to integration; because then black people owned their own restaurants that served better food and featured better music than the white-owned facilities that were off-limits to them.

The second community is Delrona Beach; a white, working-class community lined with strip malls and inexpensive beachfront motels. The high point of the year is the town's annual Buccaneer festival, an attempt to give the colorless town some color, organized by the shrill and schoolmarmish Francine Pinkney (Mary Steenburgen). But it is Marly Temple (Edie Falco, wearing no makeup and looking distractingly like a slimmer Ellen DeGeneres) who serves as the film's mouthpiece for the small business owners who are about to be displaced by the developers strongarming them into selling; the guys who decided to go ahead and serve the black people who now came in freely, unlike the old days; because after all, once they tried the food, they'd realize that they could get better food at Buster's down at Lincoln Beach. Marly has an alcoholic ex-husband who used to play in a southern rock band and now earns a living as a Civil War re-enactor; a father (Ralph Waite) who rants nonstop about how things aren't the way they used to be, a mother (Jane Alexander) who's a frustrated Sarah Bernhardt manque and Audubon activist, and a budding, if pointless romance with a landscape designer (Tim Hutton) who works for the developers seeking to take over the family motel. Marly is tough, cynical, and utterly devoid of illusions.

At times, SUNSHINE STATE seems more like one of those mid-career Robert Altman movies that's chock full of characters and no plot whatsoever. At other times, it seems like a less cheeky, far less innovative, and much less affectionate version of David Byrne's TRUE STORIES. Because for all its earnestness in conveying the Impact of Relentless Development on the Lives of Real People, the film has some oddly humorous touches, most notably Mary Steenbergen's prim, hyperactive Francine, who seems constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and Gordon Clapp as her developer/compulsive gambler husband, who spends the entire film unsuccessfully attempting suicide. But like most movies with so many characters that half the fun is counting the big-name actors who appear therein, it often seems to meander more than flow from beginning to conclusion.

That SUNSHINE STATE manages to be compelling for most of its admittedly excessive two and a half hour run is a result of stellar performances by Angela Bassett and Edie Falco. Edie Falco is no newcomer to film, though she is most closely identified with the role of the tough but highly ambivalent mob wife Carmela Soprano on HBO's THE SOPRANOS. Indeed, Carmela is the kind of meaty role that Falco inhabits so perfectly that with a lesser actress, would carry the Curse of Spock -- one of those unforgettable characters that can ruin a career. The miracle of Falco's performance here, aided and abetted by her chopped-off hair and cosmetic-free face, is that you only think about Carmela for about five minutes before she loses herself in the persona of Marly Temple.

Angela Bassett here turns in another of her knockout "ferocious female recovering from a painful past" performances, reminding us yet again that it shouldn't have taken until 2002 for a black actress to win an Academy Award. My one complaint with Bassett is that she does tend to always play variations on the same character when she's capable of so much more, but when she imbues that character with exactly the kinds of layers and complexities as real people, who cares?

That the two central female characters are so strong is no knock on the supporting cast. Bill Cobbs, a familiar face in character roles, turns in yet another strong performance as Dr. Lloyd, a vestige of the black aristocracy that used to populate Lincoln Beach, attempting virtually singlehandedly to stop the encroachment of the bulldozers. As Desiree's mother, Mary Alice eschews her customary "too sweet to be true" characterizations, here using that sweet smile to frame the kind of words that cut a daughter to ribbons. Tom Wright has the appropriate swagger as "Flash" Phillips, Desiree's old high school flame who has sold his soul to the developers, preying on his own community. Ralph Waite, morphed into Grandpa Walton as channeled by Wilford Brimley, is a wistful, less hostile Archie Bunker. And Alan King, as the most garrulous member of a kind of geriatric Greek chorus of golfers, dispenses Borscht Belt wisdom: "Look at this...it's nature on a leash."

In a John Sayles film, the message is the message, not the production values. Indeed, much of SUNSHINE STATE looks as if it were filmed on Cape Cod rather than in Florida. Yet Sayles is sometimes capable of putting some genuine poetry on film. A languid canoe trip down a swampy, sun-dappled stream; mermaids in a tourist attraction beckoning smilingly through their ersatz underwater habitat; the Buccaneer's Festival parade, its cartoonish tourists looking like refugees from TRUE STORIES' Celebration of Specialness.

SUNSHINE STATE is the average summer moviegoer's idea of Hell: two and a half hours in which very little happens, but people talk a lot. If the plot isn't sufficiently compelling to make this one of those summer sleepers, and if a bit of preachiness creeps into the proceedings, SUNSHINE STATE is still worth a look as a showcase for some of the best character actors in the business.

 

- Jill Cozzi

Review text copyright © 2002 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.

 

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