Cinema Signal:

The Major Plays

. "Winter Passing"

The intensity of character portrayal in this close study of a woman's return home to face an estranged father is usually reserved for the theater stage. And, indeed, the root of this drama is writer-director Adam Rapp's two-act play set in a garage. One of the best of his accomplishments here is the manner in which he expanded it for a film adaptation.

The subject of the story is the emotional aftermath of a woman's suicide. Reese Holden (Zooey Deschanel), the daughter, has been gone from the family house for some time, pursuing her career as an actress in New York and having refused to return for her mother's funeral in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. After a final curtain call of the play she's in, "Winter's Tale," Reese is met at the stage door by book editor Lori Lansky (Amy Madigan) with an offer to buy the collection of love letters between her literary parents for $100,000. This reminder of her inheritance provokes a return to the familial home.

Things are not as she left them nor how she presumed they would be. She's met at the door by Corbitt (Will Ferrell), a stranger holding a guitar who confronts her about her identity before informing her without explanation that Don, her dad, is living out back, in the garage. But Corbitt isn't the only stranger occupying the family home. Shelly (Amelia Warner), an ex-grad student of Don's, is there with the apparent mission to provide him meals and personal comfort in his waning energy and unending grief over his loss.

When Reese confronts her dad once again, he's in pitiful shape, long hair turned grey, physically decrepit, disinclined to move around much but still able to pound the keys of a typewriter. The meeting is strange but civil. No love lost between father and daughter it would seem--at least nothing that shows just yet. But the accusations and the hurts are there, and they will show their psychic wounds when they boil to the surface.

Meanwhile, life is strange and unfamiliar for Reese, through whose eyes and feelings we experience the adjustments she's come to make.

Deschanel finally finds a role for which her unique drollery-ranging from a vulnerability that masks itself as smug superiority, to lingering blankness--occupies the screen with charismatic intensity. The fascination she brings is better designed for this material than her spirited but otherworldly light comedic role in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." It's the gentle spirit, the huge, alert eyes, and the protected, concentrated depth that provides the main reason to see Rapp's film.

But there are other rewards in the casting department, as well. Be ready for a new version of Will Ferrell. Clearly away from the broader precincts of outright comedy and worlds beyond the rooftop of his Teutonic uberfeuhrer-pigeon trainer in "The Producers," he here reaches into the gentle teddy bear of his prodigious soul.

Ed Harris' interest in this material is what made a film possible. An actor with well honed instincts for the written word and a story that comes from the heart of the conceiver, his turmoil and difficulty in accepting the absence of his wife, expressed by the fact of his inability to live in his house and the furniture out in the yard, all symbols of his tragedic displacement, is the source of the climax in the drama. But, as much as he puts into it, the awareness of theater-heightened dialogue and development isn't far from the surface.

Even a slight exaggeration, that's often nothing more than an actor's inclination, can be dangerous to the sense of reality. And since the piece rests firmly on that foundation, it's a danger to the ultimate acceptance by a movie audience, where the theater's suspension of disbelief has no seating rights. While Deschanel's inherent naturalness rings no note of falsity, Harris's reading put me back in "The Hours," when his literary figure of Richard Brown was rendered discomfiting in the same way.

The soundtrack is unusually gifted, with Catpower, Asure Ray, Bottomside and Dawn Landes some of those lending their talents.

The intriguing thing, above all the carps, is Rapp's ingenious expansion of a one-set staging to encompass a wider frame of reference that serves his dramatic purposes without compromise: Reese's life in New York, bus trips, dinners in the house, local bars and communal involvements--all of which relevantly expose the characters' individual disabilities in coming to grips with their fracturing loss.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Zooey Deschanel as Reese Holden
Coping with the aftermath of fracturing loss
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