(director/writer: Todd Field; screenwriter: Tom Perrotta/based on the novel by Mr. Perrotta; cinematographer: Antonio Calvache; editor: Leo Trombetta; music: Thomas Newman; cast: Kate Winslet (Sarah Pierce), Patrick Wilson (Brad Adamson), Jennifer Connelly (Kathy Adamson), Gregg Edelman (Richard Pierce), Noah Emmerich (Larry Hedges), Jackie Earle Haley (Ronald James McGorvey), Phyllis Somerville (May McGorvey), Ty Simpkins (Aaron Adamson), Sadie Goldstein (Lucy Pierce), Mary B. McCann (Mary Ann), Marsha Dietlein (Cheryl), Trini Alvarado (Theresa); Runtime: 137; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Albert Berger/Ron Yerxa/Todd Field; New Line Cinema; 2006)
“A slow-paced bourgeois melodrama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Todd Field’s follow-up to his successful but overrated debut “In The Bedroom (2001)” is a slow-paced bourgeois melodrama with a heavy nod towards “Madame Bovary.” It’s based on the novel by Tom Perrotta, who co-writes it with Field. It’s set in the affluent suburb of East Wyndam, Massachusetts, where it brings to the surface the hidden discontent among the housewives and various men subjects featured. Besides being overlong, sluggish and unsure of its moral compass (it first gives sanction to adultery using the story of Madame Bovary as a cover, but later punishes the adulterers for their misconduct), it annoys further by having a continuous unseen authoritative voice-over explaining all the main characters in an overly important tone as if disclosing some great unfathomable mysteries about their inner being and at the same time telling us what to think.

Sarah (Kate Winslet) is a housewife who lives a leisurely lifestyle in an idyllic suburban bedroom community, has a master’s in English literature (trading in her pursuit of a doctorate for marriage), lives in the big comfortable house her nerdy marketing executive hubby Richard (Gregg Edelman) inherited from his parents, has a perky 3-year-old daughter Lucy (Sadie Goldstein) who frustrates her because she doesn’t know how to handle her temper tantrums or properly look after her, and she should be happy but is trapped in a loveless marriage (What do you expect when you marry such a thoughtless person who masturbates over Internet porn with panties covering his face!). Part of Sarah’s routine is taking Lucy to the playground in the afternoon. There she feels like an outsider as she meets three other suburban housewives, who are hostile, love to gossip, constantly chit-chat over mundane things and make her feel out of place. The film’s pivotal scene has Sarah meet handsome stay-at-home dad Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson), a former college football player and a lawyer without motivation who keeps failing his bar exam. He returns to the park with his toddler Aaron (Ty Simpson) after a short absence. The housewives secretly call him “the Prom King,” and fantasize over the mysterious man they have never spoken to. Lucy swings next to Aaron and one of the housewives makes a small wager that Sarah won’t have the nerve to ask for his phone number. When she finds it easy to talk to Brad, Sarah makes up her mind about how far she wants to go with him and tweaks the housewives by talking him into giving her a kiss before they depart. We follow the drab lives of both, as Brad’s pretty wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) is the domineering breadwinner in the family and competently works as a documentary filmmaker. But, alas, their marriage is also loveless. After many visits to the local pool, the two discontents make a love connection and screw madly in the laundryroom of her house while the children nap upstairs. They screw for the rest of the summer until Kathy smells a rat and finds a way to end their affair without a fuss.

The community is shaken by the news of the prison release and return to their community of 48-year-old Ronnie McCorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), who served two years for indecent exposure to a minor. The parolee sex offender is now the lightning rod that brings out all the locals’ anxieties, personal problems and prejudices. It turns out he’s a momma’s boy who lives with his doting mother (Phyllis Somerville), who has a large collection of china figurines of little children (comparing her collectibles to the way the suburbanites view their children as also valuable collectibles, who are on the receiving end of over parenting and are there for show but do not receive enough real warmth). Two of the more vocal advocates against the creepy looking sex offender are playground housewife Mary Ann (Mary B. McCann), who wants him castrated and angry ex-cop Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich) who spends his time organizing a committee to run Ronnie out of town, passes around flyers to alert the community of his presence, and he obsessively harasses Ronnie at his home. Another sidebar story has Larry befriending Brad and recruiting him to play one week a night on his amateur touch-league football team, made up of policemen. It seems Brad would do anything not to study for the bar exam.

Eventually all the dirty laundry of the town gets thrown in the washing machine: the frustrated housewives are not satisfied in the sack but compensate by being hypocrites over moral issues; the ex-cop takes up the cause of being the public safety defender with such venom because his own life is falling apart over stress; Ronnie upon his mother’s urging goes out on a blind date and finds he yearns for a real relationship, but can’t help upsetting his date and showing us that he could be a danger as he jerks off over her in his car; Sarah joins a women’s book club that argues over the heroine’s adultery in “Madame Bovary” and she sides with Flaubert’s heroine because she identifies with her unhappiness and does not fault her socially unacceptable way to rebel against a stifling marriage; and Brad feels whole again when he plays boys’ games again and gets the bang of his life.

But what does it all mean. Other than showing sympathy to all the characters and not skewering them for their foibles, the filmmaker in a contrived pedantic way makes them all appear to be very human but with problems that escalate greatly in range (it’s all superficial and doesn’t say anything about these flawed characters that isn’t obvious; Dr. Freud is not needed here). The main characters, not only the pervert, are all looked upon as failures who must learn how to deal with their inner truths or else continue to live a life of lies (which is about as profound as things get here). Since that’s not easy and no solutions are given, the filmmaker seemingly takes the high road and refuses to skewer anyone for trying to make their life better no matter how much they screw up. That might sound good on paper, but by the film’s conclusion confusion sets in when the filmmaker changes his mind about such a libertarian view and turns to being a Jehovah-like figure dishing out his fair share of punishment for all the sinning going on in town. A conventional, lumbering and manipulatively unsatisfactory dissertation ending, weighing down the narrative structure with banalities and schematic plotting, takes away a lot from the great character enhancing performances by Winslet and Haley and all the other intelligent things attempted to make the “Little Children” (Brad, Sarah, Ronnie, Larry and the other unhappy adult suburbanites) a film that has any bite.

Little Children

REVIEWED ON 11/22/2006 GRADE: C+