Christopher Eccleston, Cameron Diaz "The Invisible

A potentially revealing exploration of a girl's fascination with what her adventurous older sister did in Europe comes off as a woefully tame affair in "The Invisible Circus." Maddeningly lacking in insight, pic is so limp even Cameron Diaz, won't be able to turn the release into anything more than a briefly visible blip on the B.O. charts.

A potentially revealing exploration of a teenage girl’s fascination with what her adventurous older sister did in Europe in 1970 comes off as a woefully tame and pallid affair in “The Invisible Circus.” Maddeningly lacking in insight about the young women’s feelings as well as what made the historical period special, this last-minute substitution in the Sundance lineup is so limp even Cameron Diaz, prominently featured as the free-spirited hippie revolutionary, won’t be able to turn the Fine Line release into anything more than a briefly visible blip on the B.O. charts.

Based on a novel by Jennifer Egan, Adam Brooks’ screenplay jumps between the late ’60s, when the vivacious, up-for-anything Faith (Diaz) got involved in the protest movement, and 1976, when her younger sis, Phoebe (Jordana Brewster), wants to spend the summer before college traveling in Europe investigating what led to Faith’s mysterious death six years earlier.

Leaving her well-off widowed mom (Blythe Danner) worrying at home in San Francisco, Phoebe retraces Faith’s steps, first in Amsterdam, then in Paris, where she tracks down Faith’s boyfriend from the period, Wolf (Christopher Eccleston), then a street-theater performer and now a comfortable bourgeois with a snooty wife (Isabelle Pasco), who happens to look something like Faith.

At first, Wolf is unhelpful, claiming he broke things off with Faith in July 1970, when “I was tired of doing crazy stuff.” Unaccountably, he invites Phoebe to stay at his apartment, where she finds evidence that Wolf and Faith continued seeing each other through August. Thus exposed, Wolf confides that Faith “got involved in something” in Berlin, leading to revelations about her shenanigans with German revolutionary terrorists and transforming the picture from lame to ludicrous.

And it stays that way, as Wolf, leaving his rightly suspicious wife behind, accompanies Phoebe to Portugal, where Faith died; apparently only there, and only after he’s deflowered his old girlfriend’s little sister in a particularly unconvincing and unappetizing turn of events, can he finally reveal what brought Faith to throw herself off a cliff into the sea.

If the filmmaking and performances had been urgent, earthy and intellectually probing, this story might have offered up some haunting and resonant reflections on a life and a moment lost; even a modest film like “Hideous Kinky” conveyed a sense of what drove young people to explore the exotic and unknown in themselves and in the world during the same time period. But Brooks’ approach is mercilessly bland, a travelogue populated by unremarkable individuals.

Brewster (“The Faculty”) seems like a bright and appealing young actress, but she lacks the spark and driving curiosity that would have made the inexperienced Phoebe an engaging guide on these travels. Diaz makes an appealing hippie, but when her character gets in over her head with the German reds we don’t understand what got her there or why her innate smarts don’t allow her to get out. Eccleston’s Wolf remains uninteresting and unsympathetic throughout.

A less polite and decorous approach to the visuals and design might have helped energize the picture, as would a less conventional score.

The Invisible Circus

Production

A Fine Line Features release of an Industry Entertainment production. Produced by Julia Chasman, Nick Wechsler. Executive producers, Tim Van Rellim, Arianna C. Bocco. Directed, written by Adam Brooks, based on the novel by Jennifer Egan.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Henry Braham; editor, Elizabeth King; music, Nick Laird-Clowes; production designer, Robin Standefer; art director, Stephen Alesch; set decorator, Philippe Turlure; costume designer, Donna Zakowska; sound (Dolby Digital), Jean-Paul Mugel; supervising sound editor, Skip Lievsay; assistant director, Douglas Law; France/Portugal second unit director, Tim Van Rellim; casting, Laura Rosenthal. Reviewed at Sunset Screening Room, L.A., Jan. 11, 2001. (In Sundance Film Festival -- Premieres.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Phoebe - Jordana Brewster Wolf - Christopher Eccleston Faith - Cameron Diaz Gail - Blythe Danner Gene - Patrick Bergin Phoebe (10-12 years) - Camilla Belle Eric - Moritz Bleibtreu Claire - Isabelle Pasco
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