Men have feelings too. Men cry, despite the stigma attached to their gender, or at least they want to more than they let on. It's all societal conditioning. That's the pretentious premise of this never-ending, two-hour look at couple dysfunction.
With a highly acclaimed cast that includes Anthony LaPaglia, Barbara Hershey, and Geoffrey Rush you would hope this idea would provide great material for such illustrious actors to sink their teeth into. Unfortunately, having been adapted for the screen from a play, by the playwright himself, much of the emotional impact is lost in overwhelmingly dramatic dialogue.
Valerie (Hershey), married to John (Rush), is a therapist, and her patients' lives are starting to intrude on her own mental state. Her daughter was horribly murdered two years before and her marriage has been stagnant ever since. She and John love each other but cannot connect. One of Valerie's patients, Patrick, is a homosexual who continually talks of an affair with a married man. Slowly, Valerie becomes convinced that the divide between she and John is larger than she thought, possibly as a result of Patrick.
Then there's Leon (LaPaglia) a cop married to the beautiful and vibrant Sonja (Kerry Armstrong), who is secretly going to Valerie for therapy. Leon is having an affair with Jane (Rachael Blake), though he is still in love with his wife, as an attempt to feel something. Jane herself is consistently lonely after separating from her husband and often spies on the family next door.
These circles become claustrophobic because Valerie suddenly disappears one evening. Leon is put on the case as a detective and breaks off his affair with Jane, but still can't get his life in order. These factors combine to create many a scene in which men are trying to express emotions and mistakes to one another, and fail miserably.
To give the film some credit, it is able to portray masculine anxiety in reacting to a situation too much like a stereotypical woman would. The real problem is that during sympathetic moments, emotive speeches seem forced on all the characters that are uttering them. While the acting is basically impeccable, the conversations are unreal and difficult to accept, even at their most dramatic climaxes. It doesn't help that, when these men are trying to talk to one another, there is repetitive whining about how men aren't suppose to cry or show emotion.
Still, what keeps things interesting is that every person involved is heavily flawed. They lie and cheat and find it difficult to learn from their mistakes. There's always hope, in a new scene filled with tension, that some kind of new barrier will be breached, that some catharsis will come through. The plot is hazy enough, as are its characters, that any growth or change is unpredictable. To see the little details that spring from the characters' effects on each other rings true enough.
What also works are the dysfunctional marriage scenes between husband and wife. Communication comes through looks and stares instead of accusatory speeches. The annoying chatter present when it's two movie-character men talking is thankfully left out.
Lantana's strengths and weaknesses, like its characters, balance each other out. Not a flaw can be found in how it articulates difficulty within a marriage. If only it would stop complaining about how men are raised.
Only a couple of extras on the Lantana DVD -- a trailer and a behind-the-scenes documentary. Unfortunately neither of these explains what "Lantana" actually is....
Reviewed as part of our 2001 Mill Valley Film Festival coverage.
Chick in the woods.