'Passion Fish,' schooled in forgiveness


John Sayles is like a loving but indulgent father: His passion is to create interesting characters but he hasn't the heart to discipline them. His progeny swarm through "Passion Fish," which opens today at the Charles, blowing it out to extreme lengths and all but obscuring an already hesitant narrative line. It's more like a hugh family picnic than a movie.

Time and time again, really unusual characters kick their way into "Passion Fish," hog the camera, unfold the whole turbulent saga of their tortured lives, throb, pulsate, creak and breath, emit vapors of intelligence, regret and damnation, then leave the movie forever. Clearly what's going on here is that a short-story writer is trying to be a novelist, but he just can't stop writing those damned short stories!

The story buried under all this charm and pap is somewhat slight, but definitely worth telling. It's certainly worth watching, because the two actresses make it sing. Mary McDonnell, who usually gets simpering good-girl parts, has great fun with the embittered and wise-cracking May-Alice, the self-exiled last survivor of a proud Louisiana family who returns to the manse by the bayou after being stricken by tragedy.

May-Alice, formerly an actress on a New York soap opera, got blindsided by a taxicab and was paralyzed from the waist down. People around her come to wish her tongue had been paralyzed as well. As a result of the accident, her natural tendencies toward sarcasm and contempt have been magnified exponentially. She never meets a person she likes. Now, returning to the country that spawned her, she prepares to sink into a miasma of self-hatred, bitterness and lashing contempt, first for her own crippled body and second for the axiomatically inappropriate response of those around her. It's her nervous collapse. She's earned it and she's going to enjoy it.

There's only one problem: her nurse Chantelle (Alfre Woodard), who won't take any guff.

At first I feared that Sayles was setting up one of those grotesque '70s liberal fables about a lost white person who is saved by the inherent virtue in a black person, who is then promptly martyred and forgotten. Those vehicles managed to condescend to both races while celebrating their own cheesy and pointless virtue. But Sayles is too sharp for that. He refuses to sentimentalize Chantelle into a symbol of her race; instead, imagined whole, her color incidental to her identity, she's an ornery cuss with her own specific backpack of woe and her own wretched litany of bad decisions and grotesque failures. In her way, she's fighting the same devil that chokes May-Alice: the devil of self-hatred and its consequent desire to obliterate the self.

The true journey in "Passion Fish" is toward self-forgiveness: It's about people learning to look in the mirror and not getting the gag reflex as a reward. The magical mystery fluid is simple friendship, that most wondrous of elixirs: These two women, victims themselves, somehow form a single perfect person, bite down the temptations that have engulfed them before, and come up from the slavery of bitterness.

Good scenes abound; so do some crummy ones. Sayles doesn't know the difference and sometimes one suspects his on-set behavior consisted of turning to the extras and yelling, "OK, who wants to act today?" The menagerie includes a strong turn by Leo Burmester as May-Alice's drunken cousin, a strong turn by Vondie Curtis-Hall as a Cajun cowboy and zydeco hero romancing Chantelle, a condescending visit by two proper cousins played by Nora Dunn and Mary Portser, a strong turn by Sheila Kelley, Nancy Mette and Shauntisa Willis as three actresses who visit May-Alice and another weak portrait of a show-biz exec played by Michael Laskin.

The other constant presence is David Strathairn, who plays an old high school crush item of May-Alice's who comes by to have a shy delusionary romance with her. He's a great actor but I think you'd have to look long and hard in bayou country to come up with a good old boy who has the sensitive demeanor of Alan Alda. He's a little icky for my taste.

"Passion Fish"

Starring Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard.

Directed by John Sayles.

Released by Miramax.

Rated R.


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