Unsatisfactory marriages that create infidelity and philandering issues aren't exactly rare in dramatic fiction or in real life. But it rarely takes the unique style that writer-director Todd Field implants on it in his adaptation of Tom Perrotta's novel. Its faithfulness to the book was ensured by Perrotta's collaboration on the screenplay and the result, for me, is closer to "American Beauty"'s warped depiction of family than his own "In the Bedroom" of 2001.
But warpage here is more a matter of sly storytelling. There are no untoward histrionics, bizarre images of beauty or mid-life crises. On its surface, this incident of middle income Americans in the small, insular city of East Wyndam, MS is straight, almost common, and familiar. What is not common is the way it leaves you with the impression that it's magical realism when it's perfectly grounded in reality.
To some extent, the effect is promoted by the calculating narrator who pops in from time to time to fill in gaps, move us along in the development of characters, and add guidance in the undercurrents of emotional circumstance. The narration itself is a quasi presence, starting off various episodes with a cagey, satirical hit on one character or another as representative of the human comedy.
It begins at the local playground where mothers assemble daily to watch over their kids at play and pine for the return of the local hottie father who comes less regularly with his little boy. His reappearance, one day, sends them all atwitter on their bench as they explain what the excitement is about to the new girl, Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet), a more level-headed, cerebral type. When she learns that not only haven't any of the women talked to the guy but that they don't even know his name, adventuress Sarah rises to correct the situation. One of the women offers her $5 if she gets the guy's phone number.
She soon learns that he's Brad Adamson (cool, buff Patrick Wilson) and, instead of the phone number, she opts for a platonic but electrifying kiss on the mouth in broad daylight in front of the assembled chorus of scandalized mothers. A connection is made that will not disappear.
Such light play and the atmosphere of generally untroubled lives, however, is interrupted by the highly disturbing news that Ronald James McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), a paroled flasher/sex offender has returned to live with his mother May (Phyllis Somerville). Yes, right there in town. The development strikes fear and alarm in the people of this child-filled community.
Brad learns about it from old pal Larry Hedges, an ex-cop who has appointed himself protector-activist with flyers to make sure no one in the town misses the fact that there's a predator among them. Larry, who was relieved of duty in an incident of unjustifiable shooting, can't accept the idea that someone so sordid isn't banished.
Meanwhile, the relationship between Sarah and Patrick continues on a high level of mutual interest and almost daily contact as they watch over their kids at play from nearly overlapping blankets. Each has problems at home, him with "knockout," overachieving, high-expectation Kathy (gorgeous Jennifer Connelly) whose documentary filmmaking doesn't quite pay the bills but whose wealthy mother takes up the slack. She's more in awe over the perfection of their little tyke Aaron (Ty Simpkins) than the prospects of making it in bed with hubby.
Sarah's husband Richard (Gregg Edelman) is no gem of sexual normality either, which sets the stage for the kind of physical bliss that will go unexperienced by Sarah as long as she seeks it within the household. Within these walls, wasting boredom lies.
This is dry-wit drama in a style that calls for the most nuanced performance of innocence. Its dark humor richness derives from every actor living up to the emotionally juicy opportunities furnished by the off-beat nature of the script and Field's wizardly direction. The two female leads (Winslet and Connelly) are so deliciously artful their work here might be considered among their personal best.
Male lead Wilson holds up his end with subtlety. This actor is a man to watch. It would seem from just 8 credits in release ("Angels in America," "The Alamo," "Phantom of the Opera" and a similarly delicately balanced role in "Hard Candy") his currency is rising steadily. He is carving out a noteworthy career.
All of which talent combine in this film to make it longish but tensely fascinating.
~~ Jules Brenner