Jan 20, 2002

The Shipping News

This film doesn't work for a number of reasons. Let me focus on two.

Every story starts with the problem/need of the hero. But this one is ridiculous. In the first ten minutes of this film, a strange woman named Petal jumps into the hero's car at a gas station. The hero, Quoyle, says he loves her, she has their baby, and she brings other guys back to the house for sex.

Wait, there's more. Quoyle gets a message on the office answer machine that his parents are committing suicide, Petal sells their daughter and then dies in a car crash.

By the time this sequence is over, the audience is gone. Instead of feeling sympathy for the hero, I was laughing out loud at the overkill and feeling that this was the most pathetic guy in history.

Shipping News also suffers from a lack of plot. Plot comes from hidden information. And the most powerful hidden information is about the opposition. This film bases its plotting on a technique used in a number of psychological stories, like The Prince of Tides. The hero uncovers information, not about the opposition, but about the ghost.

Virtually all the major characters in this story are hiding something from the past that is still haunting them in the present. Notice that means the reveals always take us backward. Instead of a plot that has dramatic power in the present, and therefore in the future, this film leads to a climax based on actions that ended years ago. Result? Boredom.

One final quibble: this total loser somehow wins the affections of Cate Blanchette and Julianne Moore. Which means the rest of the guys in this movie must be dead. And the women must be crazy.