It has become a hallowed ritual of the cinematic calendar. For the third holiday season in a row, director Lasse Hallström has brought to the screen an esteemed lit’rary property, turning it into an earnest, uplifting Oscar hopeful for Miramax Films. On the surface, these movies — ”The Cider House Rules,” ”Chocolat,” and now The Shipping News — may look quite different, but really, all three utilize the same recipe. Take a big, chewy, ”important” subject; meticulously half bake until the characters, whatever their flavors, emerge as a warm and fluffy community; gently milk for popularity and prestige; and voilà! — you have a blandly high-toned Christmas cookie, otherwise known as the latest edition of Lasse & Harvey’s Holiday Art-House Special. Just be sure not to gag on your eggnog.
Except that it’s not going to work this time. Both ”The Cider House Rules” and ”Chocolat” were well-cooked pabulum, with their unassailable liberal views of, respectively, abortion rights (how bold!) and the right to? uh, eat chocolate and make love (how really bold!). But ”The Shipping News,” adapted from Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is just a limp and sodden downer. It’s set mostly in the damp, cold, gray-sweater climes of Newfoundland, where a widower named Quoyle (Kevin Spacey), the saddest of sad sacks, has arrived with his young daughter, all so that he can redeem the sullen tragedy of his life by learning to be a vital human being instead of a glum, stammering lump of self-loathing.
For most of the movie, though, he’s just a lump. It’s not entirely clear what Spacey thought he was doing, but his minimalist performance consists of not much more than standing around in a black wool cap looking fleshy and morose, as if he were a schoolboy about to burst into tears. Quoyle, as presented, isn’t a hero, or even an antihero. He’s just a wallflower in search of a screenwriter. How can this nonentity be redeemed? ”The Shipping News” throws him together with a fellow single parent (Julianne Moore) who’s got a few haunted corners of her own. He also goes to work for the local newspaper, a job that allows him to get in touch with the colorful reporter within, even though we’re given zero evidence that he can write or even hold a conversation.
Is it just me, or does a novel like ”The Shipping News” express nothing so much as a kind of free-floating depression? Quoyle, led to Newfoundland by his long-lost aunt (Judi Dench), discovers the dirty dark secret of his family, yet divorced from the gummy waywardness of Proulx’s prose, nothing in the movie makes much sense. A corpse discovered at sea, an oil-company scandal — these plot points are introduced only to be thrown away moments later. The real point is that we’re all supposed to feel real good about Kevin Spacey finally coming out of his shell. Sorry: He lost that shell a long time ago.