It's rare that a modern American screenplay comes along with the depth, humanity and sheer socio-political intelligence of the script for "Sunshine State," John Sayles' ensemble drama about the two communities on a Florida Island called Plantation and two frustrated women, Marly Temple (Edie Falco) and Desiree Stokes Perry (Angela Bassett). Sayles' screenplay reminds us of what our movies mostly miss: the whole great American literary tradition that used to feed directly into the American cinema. "Sunshine State" has its shortcomings. Visually, even compared to Sayles' own best work, it's somewhat prosaic - and dramatically, it suffers from the fact that its two main characters are kept so far apart. But the screenwriting and the cast redeem this film.
A novelist and short story writer as well as a filmmaker, Sayles is a writer less in the tradition of Ben Hecht or Billy Wilder than of John Steinbeck and John Dos Passos. He thinks out his scripts the way a good author plots out his novels. That's what he's done here: imagined a whole self-contained world populated with dozens of characters and back-stories, with a long, convincing social history for Plantation Island and a careful analysis of the upheavals of gentrification and development now coming down.
Because "Sunshine State" is a Sayles film in the style of two of his best - "City of Hope" and "Lone Star" - we know that it's going to tackle social issues, present a broad cross-section of people, and that it's going to amble and take its time in a way most movies won't. It's set in a white community called Delrona Beach and an African-American one called Lincoln Beach, and though they're seen here as two separate worlds, we get to know them intimately - as well as the two lead characters, Marly and Desiree.
Delrona's Marly is an ex-water show mermaid and restaurateur-hotelier's daughter whose dad Furman ("The Waltons" Ralph Waite), old and enfeebled by diabetes, has ceded her the business - and whose mom Delia (Jane Alexander) is a local little theater diva/environmentalist. Lincoln Beach's Desiree, daughter of salt-of-the-earth Eunice Stokes (Mary Alice), is a girl who used to be Lincoln's belle, but left as a teenage mother-to be, impregnated by the local football hero Flash Phillips (Tom Wright).
Desiree has now returned with her anesthesiologist husband Reggie (James McDaniels), to see the people she left behind 25 years ago. Marly is bidding goodbye to her would-be golf pro lover (Marc Blucas), trying to avoid her witless rocker husband Steve Tregaskis (Richard Edson) and getting tenderly romanced by dreamy landscape architect Jack Meadows (Tim Hutton).
Marly and Desiree meet only once, briefly - which is a shame. They run on parallel lines, leading parallel lives, and around them is a vast community, including the sometimes vulture-like realtors and developers. (Miguel Ferrer's Lester is the meanest of the bunch.) All of them are caught up in the furor of the local political land-use battle and the hoopla of a banal local Chamber of Commerce festival, "Buccaneer Days" a "new tradition" that is the brainchild of dotty banker's wife Francine Pickney (Mary Steenburgen), whose gambling-addict husband Earl (Gordon Clapp) is also a councilman and paid pawn of the developers. Battling all these movers and shakers is old Dr. Lloyd (Bill Cobbs), a fiery longtime resident and philosopher who laments the lost past and rails against the inexorable future.
There are four other key characters: a Greek chorus of big-time Bermuda-shorted business guys, led by silver-tongued jokester Alan King, who ruminate about the changing landscape during a golf game; they supply a wry godlike context. You really get to know these people - and that's one of the chief pleasures of the movie. Falco is wonderful - a razor-tongued, gloomy Cassandra - and most of the other performances are top-notch too. Waite is surprisingly moving as Furman Temple, a crusty old Southern reactionary near life's end, whose long-embraced prejudices are beginning to dissolve around him.
Sayles is a fluid non-showy director/editor with a taste for graceful long takes, who likes to give his characters lots of room to breathe and grow. What surprises us continually about him is the way he hops around countries and cultures - sometimes within one movie - to give us many-faceted pictures of America past and present.
He has a large, rich imagination and, in movies like this one, he mines an abundance of comic and dramatic gold. This movie probably won't impress people as immediately as "Lone Star" - it's gentler, slower and easier as it simmers along with a deceptively artless-looking Southern-fried drawly surface that has lots of zingers (especially when Falco is on). But "Sunshine State" will reward several viewings. It's the kind of movie that, aside from Robert Altman, Spike Lee, the Coen Brothers and a few others, our moviemakers don't make often enough.
3 1/2 stars
Directed, written and edited by John Sayles; photographed by Patrick Cady; production designed by Mark Ricker; music by Mason Daring; produced by Maggie Renzi. A Sony pictures Classics release; opens Friday, July 12. Running time: 2:21. MPAA rating: PG-13 (brief strong language, a sexual reference and thematic elements).
Marly Temple--Edie Falco
Desiree Perry--Angela Bassett
Jack Meadows--Timothy Hutton
Delia Temple--Jane Alexander
Eunice Stokes--Mary Alice
Reggie Perry--James McDaniel
Francine Pickney--Mary Steenburgen
Furman Temple--Ralph Waite
Murray Silver--Alan King Dr. Lloyd--Bill Cobbs
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.