Anywhere but Here, Wayne Wang’s vanilla version of Mona Simpson’s best-selling 1986 novel, centers on an irrepressible single mother who could stand a little tamping down (Susan Sarandon); her anxious, overly mature teenage daughter who could stand a little lightening up (Natalie Portman); and the resilient love between the two that allows each to find equilibrium without losing their bond.
Sarandon is at a great point in her career to play mothers whose sexual motors are still very much in gear. (The beauty of her performance in 1994’s ”Little Women” was that her Marmee, while covered up in crinolines, clearly knew marital happiness with Father and conveyed the value of that satisfaction to her girls.)
Adele (who shows all the early symptoms of aging into a devouring ”Terms of Endearment”-al Aurora Greenway, including an overweening fondness for scarves) removes Ann from Bay City, Wis., where Ann was very happy with her granny (Eileen Ryan) and her adored cousin Benny (Shawn Hatosy from ”Outside Providence”), and brings her to glamorous Beverly Hills because Adele feels stifled surrounded by such unimaginative squareness. (She also leaves a kind, dull husband behind.)
With ”The Joy Luck Club,” the Hong Kong-born Wang proved that he can choreograph a company of women with great refinement. But two generations of hot-wired all-Americans require a different kind of maintenance than a corps of Chinese and Chinese-American mothers and daughters.
And Wang’s tendency to steer clear of extremity — to stage even painful battles with exasperating, neutralizing ”fairness” — mutes Sarandon’s exciting brassiness and leaves 18-year-old Portman, in her first extended, non-Amidala role, far too much on her own. The agreeable, self-possessed young actress acquits herself nicely against her famous starry colleague, but at a price: She’s TOO agreeable and self-possessed. Portman, in effect, looks out for Sarandon in the same ways Ann accommodates Adele.
In the end, indeed, what’s missing from this by-the-numbers drama is a sense of abandon. Everything we’re ever going to know about Adele and Ann is evident from the start; there are no surprises, not even in the creamy precision of Roger Deakins’ lambent cinematography. Adele August is a large presence in ”Anywhere but Here,” but the picture is unnecessarily small.