Novelist Anne Tyler is adept at capturing the nuances of the human psyche, from its neurotic frailties to its surprising depths of valor. Director James Lapine and writer Steven Rogers mirror that skill with a captivating version of Tyler's 1977 novel "Earthly Possessions."

Novelist Anne Tyler is adept at capturing the nuances of the human psyche, from its neurotic frailties to its surprising depths of valor. Director James Lapine and writer Steven Rogers mirror that skill with a captivating version of Tyler’s 1977 novel “Earthly Possessions.” The character-driven script may be too subtle for general tastes, but will definitely reward viewers willing to invest a little patience.

The basic concept of a sheltered housewife taken on one of life’s detours is actually a story that’s time has passed, but heartfelt performances by stars Susan Sarandon and Stephen Dorff transform the out-of-date elements into a poignant tale of fate working its quirky magic.

Charlotte Emory (Sarandon) isn’t exactly what you would call a woman of the ’90s. She doesn’t drive and she’s never been outside of her hometown (set in Maryland in the book, but purposefully left open-ended here). On the same day Charlotte musters enough courage to finally leave her boorish minister husband (Jay O. Sanders), her trip to the bank to withdraw her savings is cut short when she’s taken hostage by a hooded bank robber.

Jake Simms Jr. (Dorff) is a first-time bank robber and life-long loser who escapes with a mere $300 dollars and the world’s chattiest hostage. Jake, a driver in a demolition derby by calling, turned to crime in order to spring his under-aged girlfriend Mindy (Elissabeth Moss) from a home for unwed mothers. The media paints Charlotte as an accomplice to the crime, but she’s not really a willing participant, just a lonely woman who sees Jake’s escapade as a way out. A dull and ordinary life, Charlotte surmises, is far more fatal than being held at gun point.

Although chronically unlucky, Jake’s fortune turns by absconding with Charlotte. She’s a lost-soul mate of sorts who becomes an unlikely source of strength and inspiration for him. Their eventual romance, an element invented for the movie, doesn’t disrupt the original sentiment of the story, but could easily have been left out without compromising the emotional development of the characters.

Comparisons can be drawn between “Earthly Possessions” and Sarandon’s other road movie, “Thelma and Louise,” but aside from a few similar situations, the message here is much more hopeful. Charlotte and Jake, and even Mindy have already jumped off the proverbial cliff, and the fun of the film is joining these characters on a new, adventurous road.

Sarandon will never adequately pass for frumpy, but she does an expert job in transforming the spirit of Charlotte from sheltered and frightened to knowing and confident. Dorff’s Jake is certainly no boy-toy, a la Brad Pitt, but he plays the character with just the right amount of innocence and fury. Jake may be dumb enough to use a city bus as a getaway vehicle, but he’s smart enough to know a good thing in Charlotte when he sees it.

Lapine’s stage experience is very much present in his treatment of the film. Dialogue between characters is choreographed like a play, interspersed with humorous documentary-style interviews with various witnesses who give personal accounts of the fugitives. The whole production is in tune with the pic’s overall sense of whimsy, especially Susan E. Jacobs’ clever choices in music.

Tech credits are equally cohesive and professional.

Earthly Possessions

HBO; Sat. March 20, 8 p.m.

Production

Filmed on location in New York by Rastar Production in association with HBO Pictures. Executive producers, Alan Greisman, Marykay Powell; producers, Tony Mark, Sue Jett; writer, Steven Rogers; based on the novel by Anne Tyler; director, James Lapine.

Crew

Camera, David Franco; editor, Barbara Tulliver; music, Susan E. Jacobs; composer, Stephen Endelman; casting, Illene Starger.

Cast

Charlotte Emory - Susan Sarandon Jake Simms Jr. - Stephen Dorff Mindy Calendar - Elissabeth Moss Zack Emory - Jay O. Sanders Scotty Jamison - Alan Pottinger Marvel Hodge - John Christopher Jones Old Man in Jalopy - William Duell Old Woman in Jalopy - Alice Drummond Teller (Baby Whitehead) - Danielle Ferland Bank Guard - William Hill Libby - Margo Martindale Heidi Anderson - Deborah Rush Old Man at Gas Station - Lex Monson Stu - Robert Prescott Gas Station Attendant - Terry Serpico Miss Bohanan - Barbara Spence

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more