As each year draws to a close in a meteor shower of Oscar-consideration performances, the two most popular ways to play moms in movies are ever thus: dying or droll. And having tried demise last year in Stepmom with little payoff, Susan Sarandon plays it larger than life in 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; her anxious, overly mature teenage daughter who could stand a little lightening up; and the resilient love between the two that allows each to find equilibrium without losing their bond. And I’ve got to say, noisy liveliness suits Sarandon far better than stoic suffering. The actress is far too forceful, too erotically charged, and too confrontational to play out her Oscar hopes on a sickbed—even if the dying woman is allowed a special moment to dance around the house with the kids, singing ”Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” into a hairbrush.
Sarandon is also 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.) Remember when Roseanne was gassing on about redoing Absolutely Fabulous for an American public in no need of a remake? Sarandon would have made an awesome Edina.
Come to think of it, Sarandon’s Adele August is Edina in Anywhere but Here — blithe, pushy, not a little foolish, but also brave. And Ann (Natalie Portman) is akin to Edina’s put-upon, conservative daughter Saffron — patiently and often resentfully watching out for Mom while Mom expresses herself in grandiose gestures of youthful risk taking. 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.)
In L.A., living in a sparse apartment but with lush dreams — she gives the place a peachy coat of paint for emphasis — mother urges daughter to become an actress; mother has a one-night stand with an unctuous dentist (Hart Bochner) and decides he’s her dream man even though he’s clearly just a cute weasel; mother fights with daughter about the girl’s desire for stability, security, and the right to separate from the person she loves and hates most in the world. And with each tussle and reunion, Wang steps back, way back, and lets the women have the floor.
It’s almost as if he wants to get out of their way without getting whomped. With The Joy Luck Club, the Hong Kong-born director 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. (Hold this thought for a few weeks until the release of Tumbleweeds, a strikingly similar story told strikingly differently.) Adele August is a large presence in Anywhere but Here, but the picture is unnecessarily small.
On the bright side, her health is never in jeopardy. C+
Anywhere but Here
Twentieth Century Fox
Rated PG-13 113 Minutes