by Tony Dayoub
Here are a couple of smaller movies for you to check out today. What do they have in common? Each stars an actor with mass appeal in their more lighthearted mainstream appearances, John Cusack and Matthew Perry, who sometimes fail to connect with audiences in more dramatic roles. However, both of these little gems are worth your time.
The first, Grace is Gone, stars Cusack as Stanley Phillips, a dad who manages a home repair store and raises two daughters while his wife, Grace, is fighting in Iraq. When he is informed of Grace's death, he doesn't quite know how to break it to their kids, so instead he decides to take them on a trip, a stalling tactic while he figures out what to do.
Writer-director James C. Strouse never milks the story for tears, and aptly captures the solitary, insulated feel of the situation. Phillips cuts his daughters and himself off from the world while he copes with the news of his wife's death. We are never shown that Phillips is particularly spiritual, so he doesn't seem to be stalling for some kind of divine intervention. But he does seem to be waiting to get an assist from Grace, who, no doubt, always dealt with their young kids' emotional life. Phillips often calls his home while on the trip, leaving plaintive messages to his late wife that he knows will stay unanswered. Director Strouse and Cusack both use this to make us hyper-aware of Grace's absence.
The film has proven popular with audiences on the festival circuit, and it's easy to see why. While Cusack has always been a very sympathetic lead for audiences to relate to, he is aided tremendously here by the casting of two strong child actors in the role of his daughters, Shélan O'Keefe and Gracie Bednarczyk, who apparently were discovered in Cusack's native Chicago and make their film debuts here. The children act like real children do: cute, annoying, often caught up with their own mini-dramas, and sometimes clueless to everything else going on. Cusack establishes a genuine rapport with them, that of a man who's been adept at playing the caretaker, but realizes he must finally come closer to being their friend, as well.
Numb, stars Matthew Perry as screenwriter Hudson Milbank, an obvious autobiographical stand-in for the film's writer-director Harris Goldberg. Milbank is chronically depressed, suffering from a rare anxiety disorder called depersonalization. It causes the sufferer to live in a constant fight-or-flight mode of detachment from his emotions. But when he meets Sarah (Lynn Collins), he feels motivated to start finding a cure for this disorder, hoping to start a new life with his new love.
As a screenwriter, Goldberg is best known for his Deuce Bigalow films, and it shows. Numb's greatest weakness is its tonal inconsistency. It doesn't know whether to be a romantic comedy, or a serious depiction of a rare psychological disorder. Supporting player Mary Steenburgen, as Milbank's psychologist, Dr. Blaine, masterfully steals every scene she's in. Amusingly reinforcing the cliche of the "therapist in need of therapy", the normally staid doctor falls head-over-heels for Milbank, leading to a funny, and embarrassing, confession in a restaurant that is the comedic centerpiece of the movie. But is the movie a comedy? Matthew Perry's dramatic performance doesn't seem to indicate it is. He never trivializes the character's affliction, highlighting the need for further exploration of a disorder that may affect many that haven't even heard of it. His scenes are easily the strongest of the film. But they also cause you to focus on Goldberg's uneven emotional direction.
And Lynn Collin's wonderful performance as the girl of Milbank's dreams, Sarah, serves to highlight the thinness of her character. Goldberg should have focused more attention on her since she plays such a pivotal role in the protagonist's decision to seek recovery. A virtual cipher, Sarah is never given any distinctive qualities, save for her predilection of cursing when she gets high-strung... which is not really much of a quirk. It is only the ebullient personality of actor Collins that infuses Sarah with any dimension at all.
Good for a weekend rental, Grace is Gone is definitely the superior film over Numb, but both films are worth checking out if you want to see these two popular actors stretch a bit outside their familiar territory.
Still for Grace is Gone provided courtesy of Genius Products and The Weinstein Company.