In the last twenty years, since the debut of David Lynch's
BLUE VELVET in 1986, there has been a growing subgenre of films
that explore the dark underside of suburbia. These works have
been of varying quality with some receiving rapturous reviews and
accolades (
AMERICAN BEAUTY, which in my humble opinion was
overrated) while others are dismissed as the misguided efforts that
they were (this year's
THE QUIET, for instance). Once again the
subject matter arrives on the big screen in
LITTLE CHILDREN, this
time complete with a literary pedigree as this is an adaptation of
Tom Perrotta's acclaimed 2004 novel of the same name. Perrotta
worked on the screenplay with director Todd Field and the result
is on par with the debacle that Michael Cunningham created
when he adapted his novel
A HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD
for the screen.

I know that my opinion about
LITTLE CHILDREN as a film
doesn't quite dovetail with those of many of my esteemed colleagues,
but that's what makes this work so interesting. One man's trash is
another's treasure; certainly I have championed films that many
other critics have dismissed.

Before it is assumed I have an axe to grind, I was among those
who lauded Field's debut
IN THE BEDROOM (although in retrospect and
in subsequent viewings, I identified more than a few flaws). Still, the
movie announced an intriguing voice in American film. On paper, the
follow-up of
LITTLE CHILDREN seemed a nice match, but from the
film's opening scene when an ill-advised and badly used omniscient
narrator is employed, I was squirming in my seat and checking my
watch. In interviews, Field has implied that this narrative voice is
in homage to Stanley Kubrick (with whom he worked on
EYES WIDE
SHUT
). Well, great, there's nothing wrong with stealing from a master,
but in this cast the voice-over is a gimmick. It is telling us the audience
what the character is thinking and feeling and it undercuts the
performances.

The second major misstep is in the casting. Kate Winslet is
a fine actress but she is too attractive to play the lead role of Sarah
Pierce. Even with frizzy hair and dressed in lumpish overalls, Winslet
radiates a glow that is at odds with the character. Yes, the actress
has the requisite intelligence that Sarah is supposed to project, but
she lacks a certain recklessness and self-absorbing quality that is
needed. She's also anything put plain or boyish as we are told by
that damned narrator. Winslet struggles to make something memorable
of the character who embarks on an adulterous affair with a stay-at-
home dad (a pallid Patrick Wilson), but the screenplay defeats her. It
doesn't help that there are many references to
MADAME BOVARY which
insult the audience's intelligence and feel shoehorned in to try to make
the viewer more sympathetic to Sarah and her adultery. (There's really
no correlation between the two women as Flaubert's heroine is a tragic
one and Sarah isn't.)

In the novel, Perrotta attempted to create a world that existed
just prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 but the film has dispensed
with that. He and Field have kept the arrival of a convicted sex offender
(Jackie Earle Haley) in the community, but whereas the book made the
character a bit sympathetic and kept the audience at bay about his guilt,
the film makes his intentions clear from his first appearance at a public
pool filled with children. There's also a first date with a troubled woman
portrayed luminously by Jane Adams that ends badly. Haley's character,
though, doesn't really have much heft to him and one of his big
moments is so predictable from the film's opening shots that my eyes
glazed over when it finally occurred.

Jennifer Connelly is on hand as Wilson's wife, a documentary
filmmaker whose action emasculate her spouse. Connelly, too, is
miscast in this role, lacking the edge the character needs. (The role
has also been abbreviated giving the performer less of a chance to
make an impression with audiences.) Noah Emmerich is adequate
as the local cop with a secret who has made it his mission to torment
Haley's pervert while Phyllis Somerville has a few moments as Haley's
overprotective and devoted mother.

In addition to the ill-advised use of the omniscient narrator,
LITTLE CHILDREN runs on too long at close to two and a half hours.
There are many sequences that are extraneous (such as a football game)
which either could have been completely excised or trimmed. Like so
many recent movies,
LITTLE CHILDREN proved to be a disappointment.








Little Children
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.
               and some disturbing content
Running time:    139 mins.

Viewed at the
44th New York Film Festival