OFF THE MAP
(director/writer: Campbell Scott; screenwriter: Joan Ackermann/from the play by Ms. Ackermann; cinematographer: Juan Ruiz Anchía; editor: Andy Keir; music: Gary DeMichele; cast: Joan Allen (Arlene Groden), Amy Brenneman (Adult Bo), Valentina de Angelis (Bo Groden), Sam Elliott (Charley Groden), J.K. Simmons (George), Jim True-Frost (William Gibbs); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Campbell Scott/George VanBuskirk/Jonathan Filley; Manhattan Pictures International; 2003)
“Things just seem to happen without rhyme or reason. “
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Campbell Scott’s second film as director (“Final”-2001) after a highly successful career as an actor in such films as The Spanish Prisoner and The Secret Lives of Dentists, is a family drama about transformation. The Land of Enchantment location shots were ably photographed by the diminutive Basque cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía, as he gave the film the open look it was aiming for. Even the shots inside the cabin seemed like they were outside shots and caught the desolation the story evoked. What hindered the marvelous photography was the poor quality of the print, as the low budget film shot for 51/2 million dollars on a 31-day work schedule failed to be of good quality.
I viewed it at the Williamstown Film Festival.
The rights to Joan Ackermann’s play were purchased for $100,000 by Campbell ten years ago. Campbell met the playwright when she was stranded after missing a bus connection in Bristol and he offered her a ride in his pickup truck to the New Jersey playhouse where her play was showing. The stranger was invited to see her play and he immediately became haunted by it, and purchased the film rights that very same day. It wasn’t until about 21/2 years ago that Holedigger Films gave Campbell the money to film. The film has an anticipated March 2004 release date to a limited number of art-house theaters.
One of the film’s many problems is that Ms. Ackermann was co-screenwriter with Campbell and seemed too close to her baby to see the faults in the script and make the necessary changes. It never transferred well from a play to a film, as it seemed overwritten and never had an idea where it was going as far its characterizations. It seemed to catch a lot of whimsical and cutesy things as if they were thoughts that just popped into the writer’s head without knowing what they meant, as the story remained muddled. It led nowhere and in the end seemed an unconvincing portrayal of depression that was suddenly overcome in the desert; but, there didn’t seem any valid reason for that to happen.
The film takes place during one hectic summer in the lives of the Grodens. There’s nurturing earth mother Arlene (Joan Allen) and her untalkative, vegetable-like, depressed, always crying, nonworking, painter husband, Charley Groden (Sam Elliott), and their precocious, bubbly, inquisitive, bright, home schooled, 12-year-old daughter Bo (Valentina de Angelis-she’s a professional actress, making her debut, from NYC who is half Italian and Puerto Rican). They are supposed to be emulating the hippie lifestyle of the 1970s by living off the land on an annual poverty level income of under $5,000 and living in isolation in a cabin without any modern conveniences (no telephone or TV or indoor toilets) somewhere in the desert region of Taos, New Mexico (that’s the picturesque spot where it was filmed). The adult Bo (Amy Brenneman) gives a voiceover throughout, as the filmmaker tries to imitate Terrence Malick’s style of having the voiceover not directly correspond with what’s being shown onscreen and the filmmaker also takes many dissolving shots to show the action blending in from the past to the future. That film-making style was effective for Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, but here it seemed pointless and served no purpose except as an unnecessary contrivance.
The plot centers on a handsome young man wearing a suit and tie and carrying a briefcase appearing one day in the Groden’s isolated farm retreat and staring as if struck by a thunder bolt at Arlene who is doing her gardening in the nude. It turns out he’s an IRS auditor named William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost, an actor from the Steppenwolf theater) and has come to check why there were no taxes filed for the last several years. He’s bitten by a bee and is overtaken with an allergic reaction causing a fainting spell. But he’s generously allowed to stay and is nursed back to health by the earth mother, whom he is smitten by, even though it’s found that the family owes two thousand dollars in back taxes. Bo warms up to the former short order cook and lawyer educated visitor who just located here from Massachusetts. The displaced Gibbs is supposedly plagued with an ongoing depression by the nightmarish experience of discovering when he was six years old his mother’s hanged body and has never established roots in any one spot. But to Bo, he’s the breath of fresh air she was looking for to change her lonely life. Gibbs stays on indefinitely as a welcomed guest. Previously Bo only hunted and fished with her dad’s slow-witted and laconic and docile best friend George. Bo’s isolated life has frustrated her, but she keeps busy by hunting for food with her rifle or bow and arrow, sending scam letters to food companies to get free products and falsifying information to get a credit card. Her most pressing yearning is to attend public school and lead a more normal life, which is accepted quite readily by mom. So why all the fuss?
In a conversation with Gibbs, Bo insists that Cape Cod is a state even when corrected. What connects with Gibbs, is when she pines to see the ocean she never saw. The synthesis of self and landscape transforms the guest forever, as Gibbs suddenly realizes he didn’t come to New Mexico to be a tax collector. After Gibbs out of the blue discovers he’s a visionary artist, he uses Mr. Groden’s watercolor paints to draw a 41-foot long depiction of the ocean on the back of a roll of wallpaper and presents it as a gift to Bo. It covers most of her attic room, as it circles her bed at eye level and fills her with inspiration.
What we are led to believe is that every character overcomes their nagging ailments and prospers and finds their true self because of the purity of the landscape and their simple lifestyle blending together as one. Gibbs’ painting becomes valuable when he is discovered by the art gallery crowd. The visitor’s presence acts as a catalyst for the Grodens to solve all their emotional and financial problems. Mr. Groden after reluctantly taking one of Gibbs’ anti-depressants is magically cured of his unknown crippling depression. Bo, from what we are led to believe, now lives in a big city as an adult and has a responsible job as a bank executive. My problem is the story didn’t justify any of these grand conclusions, as things just seem to happen without rhyme or reason. I was also unconvinced that Joan Allen was a free-spirited hippie. In her nude scene, Joan seemed uptight and there wasn’t even full nudity. Also the film was way too long, as there were too many unnecessary scenes that should have been cut (I would have cut the entire piled-on conclusion). The poor pacing made the film seem even more lethargic and longer than it actually was. Mr. Scott has shown that he’s a fine actor but as a director he might be bubbling over with enthusiasm and love for films, but he’s strictly a dilettante. But the film’s greatest problem that it couldn’t overcome was in Ms. Ackermann’s unconvincing script, which seemed like a tourist’s version of what New Mexico was supposed to be rather than a true heartfelt visionary experience.
For those who enjoy film tidbits, Nixon’s resignation speech can be faintly heard on the car radio when George is driving Bo into town. It doesn’t add anything to the story, but it certainly clears up the time period covered.
REVIEWED ON 11/1/2003 GRADE: C