Director Keith Gordon’s attraction to subjects of somber literary and political weight hits a speed bump with “Waking the Dead.” Unfortunately close in theme to his recent, uneven Kurt Vonnegut-derived “Mother Night” — both films cross-cut between a morally compromised protag’s “guilty” past and his later haunting by the woman he “betrayed” — adaptation of Scott Spencer’s novel reaps much more wobbly results. It’s primarily handicapped by lightweight leads in heavyweight, if sketchily developed, roles. But credibility is also weakened by a simplistic screenplay, as well as budget limitations that undermine depiction of a public political life and two period settings. USA Films release looks like a tough theatrical sell.
Narrative keeps switching between early ’70s and early ’80s, prepping us for a revelation that doesn’t quite arrive: why Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly) died in a politically motivated 1974 car bombing, if indeed she did. A decade later, her onetime lover Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup) is climbing the ladder to a senatorial seat. But he remains haunted by that loss, and even imagines Sarah still alive, sometimes glimpsed in a crowd, yet forever beyond reach.
Emphasizing its love story to the detriment of more complex themes, pic never convinces on any score. Coming off as a smug collegiate do-gooder at first, Sarah derides Fielding’s get-ahead willingness to compromise. But her beliefs are no more articulated than his — the closest we get is an activist involvement with Chilean refugees, but even that cause is left detail-free. Though doubtlessly well-intentioned, “Waking the Dead” soon establishes itself as another movie about ’60s-’70s “radical politics” that’s afraid to spell out any actual ideology — activism just seems like another period fad or, at best, a banal excuse for character “disillusionment.” “Sometimes meaningless gestures are all we have,” wise Sarah intones. Oops: There goes the ’60s again, spinning in its grave.
Fielding reflects on the ways he’d let Sarah down as he emerges as a Bulworth-in-the-making — with no apparent campaign platform — 10 years later. Guilt and longing make him go a little batty at an inopportune moment, as his political mentor (Hal Holbrook), socialite fiancee (Molly Parker) and sister (Janet McTeer) exhibit self-interested concern. Just as Fielding goes off the deep end, Sarah — not so dead after all, it seems — materializes in a poorly handled sequence, which contains such sweet nothings as “It seems wrong to think we belong together” and the inevitable: “Just hold me.”
Moist aftertaste is furthered by Lori Carson’s excruciating closing-credits song (pic overdoses on sensitive guitar ballads), which whines, “I just wanna love you” to the point of listener derangement.
Scenario hammers at the Tristan-and-Isolde-like impossibility of the central relationship, but it’s never properly established beyond some grounding cliches, and chemistry between the leads (already paired in “Inventing the Abbotts”) is nil. Pair come off as blandly pretty thesps well out of their depth here, though script doesn’t give either much of a chance. (Nor is any effort expended on aging their appearance between eras.)
Connelly seems more Junior Leaguer than baby revolutionist, but at least her part is kept to an “enigmatic” minimum. Crudup, endearingly wide-eyed as a youth, must make a jumbo load of overwrought nervous-breakdown behavior look like “mad” romanticism in the ’80s segs. He’s left floundering on that score, while role’s rising-politico aspect is ludicrously ill handled. (It doesn’t help that when Fielding wins his U.S. Senate slot, underpopulated pic finds him receiving the news utterly alone at campaign HQ.)
Fresh from her flamboyant success in “Tumbleweeds,” McTeer is wasted in sympathetic but nondescript sibling part. As Fielding’s brother, Paul Hipp channels two decades’ worth of counterculture stereotypes to awkward semicomic effect; Sandra Oh has an embarrassing bit as his Asian g.f.
Despite its limited resources, pic exhibits helmer Gordon’s usual assurance with pacing and tone. But script’s contrivance, the hackneyed dialogue and weak period flavor ultimately render “Waking” as artificial a melodrama as recent TV miniseries “The ’60s.” Tech aspects are OK.