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Far and Away

Posted by martinteller on August 26, 2012

[Note: this review was written on August 14, 2012.  For the story behind it, read this]

Scrappy young Irish lad Joseph Donnelly (Tom Cruise) sets off to murder his landlord (Robert Prosky), whose men burned down the Donnelly family home… on the very day of his father’s funeral.  After a failed attempt, he learns the old guy is actually kind of a decent fellow, with a lovely but spoiled daughter Shannon (Nicole Kidman).  After getting himself into a duel with the landlord’s lead henchman (Thomas Gibson), rebellious Shannon whisks Joseph off to America, where magnificent promises of free land await.  And so forth.  Boxing is involved.

1992 was during the peak of Tom and Nicole’s powers, when they were probably Hollywood’s premier power couple.  Still several years before the divorce, and then Katie Holmes and the infamous Couch Jumping Incident, and then lots of Scientology weirdness.  But whatever went on in these actors’ personal lives, both they have always been significant box office attractions, and even more so at the height of their celebrity powers.  And to their credit, they aren’t completely awful in this film.  The Irish accents can be painful, but at least they maintain a reasonable amount of superficial charisma.  You can sense a modicum of sincerity in their performances.  But there are other problems afoot.

Ron Howard does it again, earnestly but blandly crafting another forgettable mediocrity.  This is a man whose most distinctive directorial stamp is casting his brother in every film.  This film contains not an ounce of passion, not one clever stroke, not an original bone in its hollow body.  It’s a predictable, uninspiring story with all the narrative complexity of a “Curious George” reader.  The first four minutes establish the usual pack of Irish stereotypes: hard-workin’, hard-drinkin’, hard-fightin’ types that love to burst into song, and the clichés continue from there.  The dialogue is clunky, almost childish.  The film has nothing interesting to say about the Irish Protestant/Catholic divide, the immigration experience, or the clumsily developed relationship between its stars.

The sloppily cobbled-together lead characters feel as if they didn’t exist before the movie began, and they disappear into the ether after the credits roll.  Personality traits are plucked out of nothingness when the plot requires it, and vanish when they are no longer convenient.  We care only because Tom and Nicole are a cute couple with winning smiles, but the lack of chemistry (surprising or unsurprising, depending on your viewpoint) leaves little reason to care.  The film’s sluggish middle act spends so much time pussy-footing around their “romance” (as Cruise sublimates his sexual desire with fisticuffs) that I’m not sure which is more implausible: their getting together, or their not getting together.  And as for Thomas Gibson, he’s the Billy Zane to this film’s Titanic – a cartoonishly arrogant antagonist who brings nothing to the table.

The movie is shot – at least in its opening and closing sections – with David Lean-esque emphasis on wide, breathtaking landscapes.  It’s very pretty cinematography, but it is not evocative.  Howard doesn’t have Malick’s ability to find the character in his locations.  Instead he creates picture postcards, trying to borrow from the scenery’s grandeur (with an assist from a typically corny and overblown score by John Williams).  I could almost feel him nudging me in the side, whispering “Isn’t this a great movie?  Huh?”  Howard also makes use of the old “soul leaving the body” overhead shot, and another eye-rolling overhead shot when Cruise says, “My father told me he’d be watching me from up above”… get it?  The filming of the boxing scenes isn’t particularly imaginative, either, although those scenes are the closest the movie comes to having a pulse.

Perhaps with some of the fat trimmed (I like Prosky, but his scenes late in the film are entirely superfluous) this might be at least palatable as mindless entertainment.  But it’s all so tired and tedious, with no reason to be invested.  An empty experience.  Rating: Poor (36)

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