Dir:- John Doyle
Starr:- Colin Firth, Ellen Burstyn, Patricia Clarkson, Orlando Bloom, Amber Tamblyn, Andrew McCarthy
There is clearly a trend toward a rather heavy-handed engagement with the economic crisis amongst the denizens of Tinsel Town. Main Street slots somewhere between the likes of Cedar Rapids and Larry Crowne, except without even the saving grace of a few light-hearted chuckles. The film was the brainchild of the late Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist Horton Foote, which only serves as yet another example of the massive divide between the disciplines of film writing and theatre writing. Despite being one of the slightest movies imaginable Main Street is laden down with some of the most portentous and tiresome dialogue ever consigned to celluloid. The script is so dire that for at least an hour of the running time a curious tension is present, as it seems improbable that any film would be so mundanely straight-forward and lifeless.
Absolutely no fault for this farrago of a film should be apportioned amongst the cast. Afterall, it is the wonderfully understated performances of Clarkson, Burstyn, Firth, Bloom (yes, even Orlando is working hard here) and Tamblyn that actually make this movie at all watchable. It would take performers of the calibre of Burstyn to make any sense of the character development and dialogue that Foote has bestowed upon this production. Clarkson, Firth and Bloom bring a quiet focus to their shoddily constructed roles, that for large parts of the film manages to paper over the heavily italicised and underscored pronouncements their characters find themselves making. Firth, who struggles at times to maintain his nondescript Southern American accent, is the actor saddled with the vaguest of the characters. In a scene close to the end of the film Firth admirably tries to make a town council speech about waste management seem as important as it should, even though he is given so little to work with. First time director Doyle apparently comes from a background in musical choreography, which would go some of the way to explaining the complete absence of a directorial ear on what is actually being said during the film. Doyle will certainly take the blame for the largely uninspiring visual work on the film, not even buoyed by the Empire Falls style snapshots of decaying small-town America. However, without wishing to seem unkind – as Foote died shortly before filming wrapped – the esteemed dramatist must be held most culpable for this mess.
Apparently Foote was inspired to write the script after a visit to Durham, North Carolina, where he saw first hand the dilapidated, ghost town quality of the central business and commercial district. Such civic concern is perhaps admirable in this corporate day and age in which so much industry and prosperity is focused on the large urban and suburban sprawls of cities like New York, Atlanta and Chicago. There is also a chord to be struck with recent protest movements across developed countries, where much has been made of what career options are left open to people in large geographic areas of Europe and North America. Furthermore, American cinema has a strong tradition of movies that focus on the ideals of small-town living and the charm of tightly knit communities, running from It’s a Wonderful Life through to Doc Hollywood. Yet the sheer aimlessness of Foote’s script does nothing to enliven any debate about what is destroying smaller municipal areas like Durham, let alone entertainingly raise awareness of some issues surrounding the decline of the very idea of a ‘main street’.
The plot follows three main narrative strands with varying degrees of detail and satisfaction. First of all there is Harris Parker (Orlando Bloom), a young police officer who lives with his mother and is studying law at a community college supposedly to improve his career prospects, but also as a means of demonstrating he is a ‘winner’ to his ambitious, sometime girlfriend Mary Saunders (Amber Tamblyn). Mary works for a law firm in Raleigh and is conducting a tentative affair with her boss Howard (Andrew McCarthy, in a near pointless role), although she is unaware he is a married man. Both Harris and Mary are trapped in Durham, due to either family commitments or the difficulties of finding work, but both are also dreaming of ways to escape. A second plot strand revolves around Georgiana (Ellen Burstyn), who is a grand old dame living in a cavernous old manor house, running increasingly low on funds. Georgiana has lived in the house all her life and has a strong emotional bond with the property, something Burstyn manages to convey expertly in her highly strung moments at the start of the film. She doesn’t want to have to sell the property, but is about to do just that when Gus Leroy (Colin Firth) arrives on the scene looking to rent some warehouse space in the city. Leroy appears to be a slick, charming, snake oil salesman, who is looking to convince Durham to allow his company ESC (the level of ambiguity we’re dealing with here, Escape, get it) to process hazardous waste in the city. Disconcerted by her precarious financial situation Georgiana agrees to Leroy’s deal, but then gets her spinster niece Willa (Patricia Clarkson) involved in the proceedings, with both women becoming increasingly mistrustful of Leroy’s motives. A final plot point deals with Leroy’s interactions with the Mayor’s (Isiah Whitlock Jnr., in another variation on his bureaucrat schtick) office and the local council, in an attempt to try to interest the community in the job-creation and regeneration possibilities that would come from accepting ESC as a central business within the city.
Suffice it to say that by the end of the film each of these narrative elements has been brought together in an almost entirely arbitrary and deeply disappointing manner, reminiscent of the recent movie Café and its insistence upon the relative contingency of human interaction as a reason for not bothering to explore character in any recognisable manner. What Foote is getting at with the departure of Mary’s character for Atlanta, only for an accident to force an unconvincing love-inspired volte-face, is anyones guess. Perhaps, this is his none-too-subtle demonstration of how career-motivated migration hits places like Durham hardest. Or maybe it is just a means of setting up the film’s twee denouement, for want of something more substantial. Nothing is really made clear, despite the dialogue’s continued insistence on explicating almost everything (for example, Isiah Whitlock Jnr’s Mayor kindly pointing out to Firth’s Leroy that Durham is a conservative town). There is an interesting story to be told in there somewhere, one that has been done before during different times of financial strife, in films like Breaking Away and Hud. Oddly, the traditionally demonised corporate raider, that features large in most Hollywood films of this ilk, seems to be treated with a degree more equanimity and circumspection. If Main Street wasn’t quite so irritatingly signposted it could have been a thought-provoking and subtle take on how smaller American communities might adapt and thrive in the new century, or gradually fall apart.