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The Annihilation of Fish

A drear moment in the careers of all concerned, this would-be charmer about an elderly man and woman who fall -- sometimes literally -- for each other at a boarding house will go over big with everyone who ever craved seeing a bed scene with James Earl Jones and Lynn Redgrave. Theatrical release other than via self-distribution is out of the question.

With:
Poinsettia - Lynn Redgrave Fish - James Earl Jones Mrs. Muldroone - Margot Kidder

“The Annihilation of Fish” is a minnow of a movie. A drear moment in the careers of all concerned, this would-be charmer about an elderly man and woman who fall — sometimes literally — for each other at a boarding house will go over big with everyone who ever craved seeing a bed scene with James Earl Jones and Lynn Redgrave, but everyone else will surely steer clear. Theatrical release other than via self-distribution is out of the question, with the odd TV date repping the only imaginable market.

It’s hard to imagine what the filmmakers were thinking when they put this project together, in that it’s a picture about two oldsters with very little forward momentum, no subplots and the barest of production values. The stars and director Charles Burnett have names to reckon with, but they’ll all have to write this one off as a misguided bit of whimsy.

Jones plays a proud and proper Jamaican native nicknamed Fish who, after years of institutionalization in New York, journeys to Los Angeles to see out his days in a rented room in an Echo Park-area building managed by widow Muldroone (a startlingly aged and Southern-accented Margot Kidder). Fish’s problem is that he’s reguarly assaulted by a demon named Hank whom he must wrassle into submission.

Moving in across the hall is Poinsettia (Redgrave), an old ditz with a booze and Puccini problem, the latter taking the form of a “romance” that sees her squiring the late Italian composer around wherever she goes and croaking out arias from “Madam Butterfly” at all hours.

At length — great length — the two get together, exchange backstories, cook, try to help one another with their obsessions and, oh yes, bed down, despite Fish’s demurral that, “I don’t know if it works anymore.” Poinsettia’s insistance that, “I can make it work” and then proving it reps either the film’s high or low point, depending upon your p.o.v.

Conflict arises only when Poinsettia “kills” Hank, thereby depriving Fish of a very longtime companion. Themes relating to casting off delusions and relieving loneliness are given all too explicit airings, and there is nothing in Anthony C. Winkler’s script that is so unimportant that he doesn’t believe in repeating it several times over.

Jones is an actor whose very essence is made of strength and dignity, so he retains vestiges of these qualities even under the adverse circumstances. Redgrave, however, is utterly embarrassing, and Burnett has done her no favors by repeatedly cutting to closeups of her in frumpy get-up, fright-wig hair and runny makeup, often screeching or crying.

Production values on a clearly very modest budget are pedestrian.

The Annihilation of Fish

Production: A Paul Heller production in association with American Sterling Productions. (International sales: Goldfish L.L.C., Beverly Hills.) Produced by Heller, William Fabrizio, John Remark, Eric Mitchell. Executive producer, Kris Dodge. Directed by Charles Burnett. Screenplay, Anthony C. Winkler.

Crew: Camera (CFI color), John Ndiago Demps; editor, Nancy Richardson; music, Laura Karpman; production designer, Nina Ruscio; set decorator, Matt Callahan; costume designer, Christine Peters; sound, Veda Campbell; line producer, Arlene Albertson; assistant director, Kris Krengle. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 12, 1999. Running time: 108 min.

With: Poinsettia - Lynn Redgrave Fish - James Earl Jones Mrs. Muldroone - Margot Kidder

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