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How to Quit Drugs for Good:
A Complete Self-Help Guide
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
"Things We Lost In the Fire"
A somewhat too long modern melodrama is turned into an affecting story of recovery and redemption by two extraordinary actors. Locking a widow's inability to accept her husband's death into an embrace with a junkie's struggle over the tyranny of his habit may not please the action crowd, but it will play well among fans of psychological conflict and romance fanatics.
Audrey Burke (Halle Berry) was deeply loved by her husband Brian (David Duchovny) who, as a very successful architect, provided for his family very well indeed, both emotionally and financially. The depth of her love for him may explain why she is having so much difficulty in adapting to his loss since his death at the hands of a crazed gunman. She can't even bring herself to enter his study.
On the other hand, the kids, 6-year old Dory (Micah Berry) and 10-year old Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) seem more resilient, though the tragic loss of their father has left them all too ready to find a substitute.
Enter Jerry Sunborne (Benicio Del Toro), hubby's best friend since childhood. When he appears at the reception prior to the funeral, Audrey is demonstrably glad to see him in attendance. She hasn't seen him in a long while. "I hated you," she says by way of confessing how she felt about Brian spending so much time with him, Jerry's absence from her home being due to his inability to clean himself up from the drug habit that ruined his career as a lawyer.
For his part, he takes her condemnation readily, perfectly aware of the effects his addiction had upon Brian's home life.
Seeing him again starts some kind of mutual aid process and, after a series of bad starts between them, she recognizes that Jerry could at least partially fill the void that's wrenching her. The positive effect je's having on the children is no small factor, either. She invites him to occupy the garage apartment until he gets on his feet, a place from which he might be better able to shake off his demons.
Another big help is Audrey's neighbor Howard Glassman (John Carroll Lynch) who befriends Jerry and invites him for a morning run, which improves his physical condition and, with Howard's support and total acceptance by the kids, he improves enough to take a test for a real estate license.
He's also going to group therapy and, in a session, meets Kelly (Alison Lohman), an addict who knows the rehab ropes a lot better than Jerry, and the signs of falling back. Behind every recovered addict, the script seems to be telling us, there's an addict supporter. Kelly is Jerry's. She's also the means for some instruction in Addiction-101, for Jerry's benefit and ours.
Meanwhile, Audrey, continuing her struggle to cope with her denial while trying to get a grip on a confusion of feelings, commits a series of stupid errors in judgement that sends Jerry reeling backwards to an addict's way of dealing with distress. But the connection between them, by now, can't be broken. The level of interdependence that has developed is too great a positive influence on each other to easily dismiss. When she realizes that she acted poorly, she makes the necessary moves toward salvaging their relationship. Doing so proves to be a case of cathartic mutual therapy, the basic conceit of the screenplay by Allan Loeb, directed by Susanne Bier ("Brothers").
On the negative side of this formulation, one could point out Audrey's dizzying switches with Jerry, and his consistent availability to go every which way with no argument or condition. The shifts may be realistic to some, and a sign of a person not coping well. It may suggest that the weakness of a junkie isn't confined to using the drug, but what does that say about his chances to truly recover? His pliability has the flavor of a bit too much literary shorthand.
Overbalancing the negatives is Bier and Loeb's determination to stay as far away from the standard cliches and developments common to stories about overcoming bad habits, the strongest indication of which is in avoiding the leading characters a romantic union, as pervasive as the idea is. The way it's handled, it's a development that must await another day. Thus, the movie avoids the delicate issue of a best friend taking advantage of a grieving buddy's wife. The imposed restraint also avoids the fantasy Hollywood (read, artificial, commercial) formula.
As a directorial technique, Bier repeatedly goes in for extreme closeups of eyes -- one eye of each of her characters -- as they observe and react. As much as it is an arty choice, I must say it is effective in suggesting the eye as the window into the soul and an expressive part of the person's emotional state, at least in some instances.
Del Toro hasn't had as good a vehicle for his interpretive sensitivity since "21 Grams." His alternation between a partially, then totally, strung out user, then progressing to a cleaned up stage of recovery, shows performance range.
And, speaking of choiciness, Berry once again blows me away with the depth of her talent and the perfection of her beauty. Why should I be surprised when someone who looks that good is also flawless in performance?
~~ Jules Brenner