(director/writer: Terry George; screenwriters: John Burnham Schwartz/based on the novel by Mr. Schwartz; cinematographer: John Lindley; editor: Naomi Geraghty; music: Mark Isham; cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Ethan Learner), Mark Ruffalo (Dwight Arno), Jennifer Connelly (Grace Learner), Mira Sorvino (Ruth Wheldon), Elle Fanning (Emma Learner), Eddie Alderson (Lucas Arno), Sean Curley (Josh Learner), Antoni Corone (Sergeant Burke); Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Nick Wechsler/A. Kitman Ho; Focus Features; 2007)

“The pileup of coincidences makes this film inevitably seem like a car wreck… .”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A painfully awkward psychological drama that’s based on a newspaper headline type of story that veers into the higher realm of being a moral parable about redemption. It works and it doesn’t work, depending on how you approach it. It does move beyond a banal soap opera story due mainly to the finely tuned performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Ruffalo, who convincingly portray grief-stricken fathers who must deal with their pain and are having life-altering experiences trying to get a grip on themselves. Yet it’s so manipulated that the dramatics come in for some rather mawkish moments and cries of disbelief. Novelist John Burnham Schwartz adapts it from his own acclaimed novel from 1998, while under Terry George’s (“Hotel Rwanda”) ‘hands off the merchandise’ restrained direction the film nevertheless poignantly shows how in a moment of weakness almost anybody can become a criminal by making a wrong decision and also how from the deepest hurt a change for the better is possible.

A divorced Connecticut lawyer Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo), returning his adolescent son Lucas to his nagging argumentative remarried ex-wife Ruth Wheldon (Mira Sorvino) after a weekly visitation day that had the two bond by attending an extra-inning night game in Boston’s Fenway Park, tragically kills the 10-year-old Josh Learner, the son of a local professor Ethan Learner (Joaquin Phoenix), in a hit-and-run accident with his SUV when Josh leaves the parked car by a gas station to go to the side of the road to free some fireflies from a jar. In a far-fetched scenario, the grieving Ethan is not satisfied with the police’s efforts after a week of no results and hires Dwight as his lawyer to light a spark under the investigators and for a possible civil law suit.

The tragedy deeply shakes up both dads; the professor goes from being an ideal family man to neglecting his wife Grace (Jennifer Connelly) and his young daughter Emma, as he obsessively hunts down his son Josh’s killer. At the same time, the lawyer is guilt-ridden and vows to pay more attention to his son and hopes that his son will learn to respect him. The professor does eventually track down Dwight and confronts him at gunpoint before letting him go. A contrite Dwight somehow gains our sympathy (despite there being no excuse for his leaving the scene of the accident) as he not only learns how to become a better father but turns himself into the police to face the law.

The pileup of coincidences makes this film inevitably seem like a car wreck, but if you possibly can get over its many artificial and demanding moments I think you will find something humming that makes it run maybe not like a shiny new BMW but at least like an old Volks.

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REVIEWED ON 11/28/2007 GRADE: B-