This review was corrected on Mar. 12, 2002.
A bland gumbo of wartime intrigue and home-front soap opera in the bayou country of Louisiana, “The Scoundrel’s Wife” is a low-mileage comeback vehicle for Oscar winner Tatum O’Neal. Cast in her first significant adult role since Jan Spencer’s “Little Noises” (1991), former child star may generate some interest among curiosity-driven auds with her competent but colorless performance. Even so, “Wife” won’t be walking down too many theatrical aisles. Cable and homevid beckon.
O’Neal plays Camille Picou, a widowed mother of two teens, daughter Florida (Lacey Chabert of TV’s “Party of Five”) and son Blue (Patrick McCullough), in Gulf Coast town of Cut Off, La. Camille is the local pariah, due to widespread rumors about her involvement with her late husband’s unsavory (and possibly murderous) activities.
A local dance in late 1942 is interrupted by radio reports of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A few months later, Cut Off is more or less under the command of Coast Guard Ensign Jack Burwell (Eion Bailey), a sleazy young blowhard who’s charged with preventing any local fisherman from trading with crews of German U-boats that are patrolling the Gulf Coast (and, not incidentally, sinking merchant ships).
Burwell claims he’s keeping an eye on Camille because he suspects she may be consorting with the enemy. But he’s really much more interested in wooing Camille’s nubile daughter. Camille sees through the ensign’s smooth talk and ships Florida off to New Orleans to work in a shipyard.
Dr. Lenz (Julian Sands), a refugee from Germany, settles in Cut Off as the town’s new physician. Attracted to Camille, he employs her part-time as his housekeeper and medical assistant. Camille in turn is drawn to the broodingly handsome doctor, leading to a faux-arty lovemaking scene. But she’s repeatedly frustrated by his evasions when she asks about his past.
Leisurely paced pic starts to develop mild suspense only after two Germans escape from a local POW camp where Blue is employed as a guard. After one of the escapees is fatally beaten, Blue takes the surviving prisoner to Dr. Lenz for treatment. The good doctor–– who isn’t all he seems — has good reason to refuse treatment to any German soldier but ends up doing the right thing.
Climax is a staggeringly unconvincing sequence in which an angry mob docilely cooperates by remaining silent each time a key character offers a speech, makes an accusation or issues a proclamation. Here and elsewhere, director Glen Pitre demonstrates a pronounced awkwardness while choreographing movements of more than four or five people onscreen at the same time.
Even during more intimate scenes, Pitre — himself a native of Cut Off — fails to inject much local color or distinctive flavor into the proceedings. There is a generic feel to much of “Scoundrel’s Wife,” a sense that pic could have been set in Anyplace USA. This is all the more disappointing if you recall the vibrant specificity of Pitre’s last indie drama set in Louisiana bayou country, “Belizaire the Cajun” (1986).
Directing from a script he co-wrote with wife Michelle Benoit, Pitre does relatively little with the potentially fascinating, relatively little-known historical footnote — U-boat activity in the Gulf Coast — at his disposal. On the other hand, maybe pic will inspire the History Channel to produce one of its more intriguing “Hollywood vs. History” docus.
O’Neal is technically proficient without being at all engaging, while Bailey is too obvious and obnoxious by half. Chabert overplays the budding sultriness of her teen character, but that’s preferable to McCullough’s sleepwalking as her sullen sibling. Sands coasts along with a tricky accent and a soulful expression. Tim Curry is atypically restrained as a hard-drinking local priest with a naughty twinkle in his eye.
Uta Briesewitz’s first-rate color lensing is pic’s most notable tech value.