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IN SHORT: Begin and End with Death. In the middle, despair!. [Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, some disturbing images and brief language. minutes]
What happens when you carefully balance three stories with parallel themes, each separated by at least twenty years of time, with an equal number of fine performances in each of those roles? You send an audience screaming for the exits, that what happens. Don't ask us why FilmStudentThink raises emotionally heavy and deadening pictures to the top of the critical pedestal, we're just ordinary folk. The last time we can remember such praise for such an unbearable sit was another Nicole Kidman starrer, Portrait of a Lady. If you loved that film, which was flat out boring on top of being an unbearable sit, then disregard all that follows.
We don't think the word "magical" is synonymous with emotionally deadening, either. We don't think it's fair to an unaware audience to use the word "unhappy" when the proper word is suicidal. That's what other critics have done in regards to The Hours and, though we normally ignore 'em all, not this time. We respect every single A-list name performing on the big screen in this monster, but a grab for Oscar is just that. For the most difficult role an actor can take is one which is emotionally untenable for an audience to sympathize with. Perhaps it was possible in Michael Cunningham's novel. But we don't acknowledge Source Material because you shouldn't have to know it to "get" the film.
Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) wrote many fine books, among them one called Mrs. Dalloway (which "she" writes written in the continuity of this story). Woolf, the real person, committed suicide. Woolf, the character in this film, commits suicide as well. Twice. Woolf is going crazy and she knows it. So does her husband, Leonard (Stephen Dillane) who does his best to protect his wife, out in the English countryside. Virginia wants to move back to London, knowing full well that city life inflames her mental disease.
In Los Angeles, 1951 happily married mom Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), feeds her loving hubbie Dan (John C. Reilly) and single digit son Richie a heaping, hearty breakfast and sends them on their way. Dad goes to work and Richie is left with a local babysitter, because mom has important adult things to do that she can't bring him along for. Richie suffers his first major separation anxiety which may be made even worse since mom, has also read Mrs. Dalloway, and is having suicidal thoughts.
In 2001, a grown up Richard (Ed Harris) and his one time love Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep) can quote passages from Mrs. Dalloway back and forth to each other in lieu of true dialog. That love was a frivilous, passing fling and both have settled into homosexual lifestyles. Clarissa is ten years into a solid relationship with Sally (Allison Janney). Richard, it appears, was not too selective. The birthday party being thrown this day, with a full table set aside for all the ex-lovers who survived the plague -- including the most significant of 'em all Louis (Jeff Daniels) -- will probably be Richard's last. AIDS will probably take him before the next anniversary, and everyone knows it.
The Hours is packed with disturbing and/or miserable lives and/or characters and/or circumstances, all wrapped up in parallel stories which intersect brilliantly, matching equally terrific performances yielding an emotionally painful and disturbing and miserable time in the dark. Merry Christmas, folks.
Only those A-list performances keep The Hours watchable. Even in negative stories the audiences needs a respite; some breathing room. While you wait and wait for that respite The Hours fails to provide it, though Streep's character does her best to keep an upbeat tone as she tries to discourage Richard from taking the easy way out. Of course, we sat in a room filled with people who knew the book, passionately. They loved what they saw. We got into verbal fistfights with other critics when we termed the film 'unbearable'.
Funy thing is, though, all of 'em came out talking about what a finely crafted and performed work The Hours is (no argument there from Cranky) and the question they were bantering back and forth was: "Is anyone going to go see it?"
For those of you who adore the arthouse circuit, Go. Be miserable. Enjoy that snide satisfaction you get from knowing that you can sit through what most everyone else wouldn't touch with a stick. Great actors love unbearable characters and situations because it pushes their acting prowess to the limit and tickles the portion of critic's brains that affect Academy votes. At least The Hours is balanced enough across the board that it doesn't come across as a blatant grab at Oscar on the part of any of the individual stars. But it is what it is.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Hours, he would have paid . . .
Rent so you can hit pause when you need an escape
The Cranky Critic website is Copyright © 1995 - 2017 by Chuck Schwartz. Articles by Paul Fischer are Copyright © 1999 - 2006 Paul Fischer. All images, unless otherwise noted, are property of,©, ®, ™ their respective studios and are used by permission. All Rights Reserved. Not to be used or copied for any commercial purpose. Academy Award™(s) and Oscar®(s) are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.