Shot in 12 blustery days in New Jersey, “The Simian Line” is an uneven, at times absorbing portrait of four couples struggling to define their relationships. With a big-name cast, pic should have no trouble locking up a distributor, but it’s a little too European in sensibility for anything more than an arthouse run.
Title refers to a specific line in palm reading that indicates a person’s head and heart are inextricably entwined. Such is the case with the characters here, especially middle-aged divorcee Katharine (Lynn Redgrave), who’s terrifically in love with her live-in younger beau, Rick (Harry Connick Jr.). Katharine loves to throw dinner parties, and one Halloween she invites such an odd array of guests that she quietly muses the party mix could be a recipe for disaster.
Indeed, the guests could not be more dissimilar: Katharine’s tenants, Marta (Monica Keena) and Billy (Dylan Bruno), are a young and boisterous pair of rock musicians, while neighbors Sandra (Cindy Crawford) and Paul (Jamey Sheridan) are attractive, conservative yuppies. On a whim, Katharine has also asked a daffy psychic, Arnita (Tyne Daly), to dinner.
But Arnita has spotted two other guests, invisible spirits Mae (Samantha Morton), a 1920s flapper, and Edward (William Hurt), Katharine’s great-grandfather. Shaken by the mood of the gathering, Arnita makes an ominous prediction: One of the couples will break up before the year’s end. Though they dismiss her as a quack, the dinner guests can’t help being disturbed by her warning.
As autumn turns to winter, the lovers seem destined to fulfill Arnica’s prophecy. A growing flirtation between Sandra and Rick begins to consume Katharine with jealousy, whereas Marta and Billy may be on the rocks after he learns a troubling secret from her past. Meanwhile, Sandra finds herself increasingly irritated with Paul’s egocentrism and long hours at the office. The turn of events forces each person to decide his or her objective and, eventually, to claim it.
Director Linda Yellen encouraged her cast to improvise bits of their dialogue and to collaborate on the script. Under the assured hand of a Mike Leigh, with months of preparation, that technique enables cast members to inhabit their characters with remarkable thoroughness. Here, however, with actors of varying styles and little prep time, it creates inconsistent pacing. Whereas the Connick-Redgrave scenes sparkle with vigor and energy, Mathis and Hurt, as the ghosts, repeatedly step on each other’s lines, rendering some of their dialogue unintelligible. And with sound work done during shooting, there was no window for post-production improvements.
There’s a problem, too, in the number of stories Yellen has undertaken. By far the most compelling portrait is that of Katharine and Rick, and Connick and Redgrave give such achingly honest performances that you wish the whole movie was theirs. Instead, the other tales, invariably less gripping, are given superficial treatment which consequently dilutes the film’s strength.
Still, there are beautifully rendered and memorable moments throughout, like the drunken Katharine’s embarrassment and self-disgust after jealously chasing Rick out of the house, a scene that has to stand among Redgrave’s best work. And Arnita and Katharine have a terrifically funny encounter that is a fine dramatic showpiece for the two actresses. Redgrave brings a wonderful looseness to her part, and Daly seems willing to try anything.
Production values are impressively high. Though pic is at times undermined by a lack of unifying perspective, its glimmers of greatness are a testament to the talent involved.