Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A Walk on the Moon (1999)

A Walk on the Moon sounds great on a dramatic level: a story about the romantic ideal of the family unit being usurped by the "summer of love" mentality, the sense of following one's passions at the expense of paternal responsibility. Only adding to the intrigue is the fact that the film is literally set during the summer of love, that wistful Woodstock summer of 1969 right on the cusp of the Age of American Paranoia. We're given what appears to be a rock-solid family: a loving, sensitive mother, Pearl, (Dianne Laine), Marty, the responsible father (Liev Shreiber), two beautiful children, and to boot, a grandmother who takes the notion of "family sticks together" to its extreme by being a kind of emotional advisor to the clan. 

As the film opens they're preparing for their annual summer vacation to a summer camp. The only problem is that Marty's going to have to be driving back and forth between home and the camp so that he can continue to work. It's a particularly urgent moment for him because his television repair job is flocking with patrons needing work done on their sets so they can watch the historic moon landing. 

Coinciding with that is the arrival of the "blouse man," a young handsome man (Viggo Mortensen) who makes his rounds to the camp to sell shirts to all the moms who are desperate for some excitement to counteract their daily bland discussions over picnic tables and lemonade. Young, well-built, and with the perfect amount of stubble to compliment his high cheekbones and long hair, we get the sense that Walker Jerome (his name's backwards, people keep saying, a rather obvious way of suggesting that he's a free man of the age, the opposite of these campers tied down by family and responsibly) does this every year just for giggles. Maybe there'll be a young housewife desperate for liberation who he can woo with his stunning good looks and charm.

And sure enough, that's exactly what Pearl is looking for, especially with her husband being out of the picture for so much of the vacation. They begin the expected affair that's all perfectly bland, complete with a sensuous water-fall sex scene that looks like it's taken from some 80s soft core porno. 

As expected, Pearl's adventures can't be sustained, as Marty finds out through the grandmother and explodes. In one of the more interesting choices the film makes, Pearl doesn't actually stop her rendezvous with Walker. Because Woodstock is happening at the same time, we know the film is going to wind up there some way or another. Pearl ends up sneaking out with Walker and, in one of the few really inspired scenes that director Tony Goldwyn is able to conjure up, we see them sink into the legendary concert event, surrounded by young hippies, face paint, music, and kids trying to get their hands on bottles of liquor probably thinking it's apple juice. The only problem for Pearl is that her teenage daughter (played by Anna Paquin) has also snuck off to the show, and when she spies her mother's shocking display of hedonism through a pair of binoculars, she's left with a trouble hypocrisy: her mother's been trying to protect her from the hippie lifestyle because she's too young while simultaneously exhibiting the same behavior of a child rebelling against her parents. 

There are some good dramatic scenes that follow as Pearl tries to make her daughter understand the situation without seeking any sort of justification for her actions, and her husband at least consider not breaking up the family. The actors are all good, particularly Lane, who's the master of making the cheating wife a sympathetic figure (see Unfaithful), and Paquin, who's got the teen angst and rebellion thing down pat. The men in the film however come across as bland and predictable, with Schreiber hitting all the obvious notes of rage when he finds out about his wife's affair, and Mortensen registering not so much as a character but as an attractive physical presence who's so perfect in everything he does that no woman could resist him. 

In other words, the film feels too pre-packaged, lacking any real sense of adventure or spontaneity, which is a shame when it's about those very things.  

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