Much has been written about the underserved demographic of middle-aged moviegoers starved for films that reflect life experience in their advancing years. They deserve better than "Bonneville," a bland road movie running on empty. Christopher N. Rowley's debut feature looks to get the most mileage out of cable dates.

Much has been written about the underserved demographic of middle-aged moviegoers starved for films that reflect life experience in their advancing years. They deserve better than “Bonneville,” a bland road movie running on empty. It’s depressing to see a deluxe cast wasted on such by-the-numbers material — from predictable plot to fabricated Hallmark sentiment to strenuous milking of warm-and-fuzzy laughs from the irrepressible spirit of three women whose youth is behind them. Rarely rising above pedestrian efficiency, Christopher N. Rowley’s debut feature looks to get the most mileage out of cable dates.

Crisp widescreen lensing (courtesy of d.p. Jeffrey L. Kimball) of magnificent American West landscapes and its Oscar-bait cast give the project an air of dignity. But the casting to type of three high-caliber actresses, all of whom have amply proven their ability in the past to create vividly etched characters, only underlines the absence of original ideas.

It’s as if writer Daniel D. Davis had fed into a script program the screen personas of Jessica Lange (proud self-possession tinged with fragility), Kathy Bates (down-to-earth, raunchy good humor) and Joan Allen (uptight propriety), adding thematic ingredients of grief, strength, friendship, bittersweet experience and endurance to his data input.

Her features frozen into an expression suspended between laughter and tears, Lange plays recently widowed Arvilla. When her brittle stepdaughter (Christine Baranski) threatens to sell her house out from under her, Arvilla is forced to transport her husband Joe’s ashes from their Idaho home to Santa Barbara to be laid to rest alongside his first wife. Her fellow Mormon gal-pals Margene (Bates) and Carol (Allen) go along to lend support.

Setting off in Joe’s lovingly maintained 1966 Bonneville convertible, Arvilla on impulse decides to miss their scheduled Salt Lake City flight and drive to California instead. Conflicted over Joe’s wish to have his ashes scattered in places they visited together, she goes on a pilgrimage across the plains, literally letting a little of her husband go at each stop while embracing her memories of him and summoning the strength to continue.

Lange wades with poise through some awkward solo scenes, cooing romantically to the urn containing Joe’s remains. But her character’s grief, and emergence from it, are never as affecting as they should be, perhaps because the script assumes rather than earns the expected emotional responses.

Her friends also undergo changes during the journey. Joined at the hip to her husband and her church, prim Carol lets down her hair and discovers her independence while, in between dispensing wisecracks, Margene finds romance with a gentleman trucker (Tom Skerritt) and reveals her own cause for sadness. There’s also an interlude with a soulful young hitchhiker (Victor Rasuk) searching for the father he never knew, that adds a note of tenderness.

No doubt some audiences will respond warmly to the film’s affirmation of female friendship, solidarity and resilience, not to mention its wholesome values. And while none of the perfs contains any surprises, the class of its pedigree leads goes some distance toward fostering emotional investment in their characters. But there’s a big difference between a filmmaker who can actually convey with real feeling the pain of loss or the courage required to carry on, and one who merely connects the dots to illustrate it.

Bonneville

Production

A SenArt Films production in association with Drop of Water Prods. (International sales: Cinetic Media, New York.) Produced by Robert May, John Kilker. Executive producers, Bob Brown, R. Michael Bergeron. Directed by Christopher N. Rowley. Screenplay, Daniel D. Davis; story, Rowley, Davis.

Crew

Camera (color; Panavision widescreen), Jeffrey L. Kimball; editor, Anita Brandt Burgoyne; music, Shie Rozow; music supervisor, Matt Kierscht; production designer, Christopher R. DeMuri; set decorator, Les M. Boothe; costume designer, Sue Gandy; sound (Dolby Digital), Steven C. Laneri; associate producer, Lauren Timmons; assistant director, Eric A. Pot; casting, Avy Kaufman. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala), Sept. 11, 2006. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Arvilla Holden - Jessica Lange Margene Cunningham - Kathy Bates Carol Brimm - Joan Allen Francine Holden Packard - Christine Baranski Bo - Victor Rasuk Bill Packard - Tom Amandes Arlo Brimm - Tom Wopat Emmett L. Johnson - Tom Skerritt
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