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Movie Heaven 

by Ed Symkus

John Sayles may be American independent cinema's great proponent of getting intelligently lost. Or, as some might have it, he's our preachiest author of wonderful roles for talented actors, as well as lovely, smart dialogue.

Sunshine State, Sayles' 14th feature in just over 20 years, is often a joy to watch. Yet nearly two-and-a-half hours of melodrama and speechifying, combined with Sayles' usual reserved visual style -- widescreen shots with severely limited editing -- results in large swaths of boredom. This sort of static style is usually more suited to landscapes than to Sayles' gorgeously talky scripts, but he's adamant as adamant can be about his language as a playwright.

Our moral lesson for the day takes place in the fictional enclave of Plantation Island, Florida, which has over the decades quieted down as a low-key, rundown beachside community. While the Northerners coming down to buy up the property are represented, Sayles' script and sympathies lie largely with the locals. As a former student of psychology (animal and human), Sayles is quick to examine the smallest particulars of the motivations and desires of his characters, and when actors understand the gusto of his impulses, they come through with spectacular success.

While watching Sunshine State, I was impressed by each and every moment, and only began to question its fabric after recalling the plotting, which seemed obvious and reductive. But while watching fine actors go toe-to-toe, hungry like wolves for a role with meat, it was a kind of movie heaven.

Even before The Sopranos, anyone who followed the career of Edie Falco (who plays Carmela Soprano in the HBO hit series) in movies like Laws of Gravity and Cop Land knew that she was a severely underused natural resource. In Sunshine State, she's the weary embodiment of a woman growing older while preserving the dream of her father (Ralph Waite, wondrously crusty and severely un-P.C. in his monologues) to keep a family-scaled motel in business. She drinks, swears, flirts, flings... (Jesus, she's a dream). While capturing Marly Temple, the character, who once had a career as a swimmer -- albeit in a water show where she was a "Weeki Wachee Mermaid" -- Falco is sexy, sexual, obstinate, funny, iron-willed and gentle as a breeze. Men don't make Marly's life any easier, including her geeky ex-husband (Richard Edson), a golfer who wants to turn pro and who she's using for sex, and finally, Timothy Hutton, the archly named Jack Meadows, a landscape architect in cahoots with the land-grabbers. The duo share some sweet hangovers. This is a comedy for adults, about adults, and each laugh is earned and topped with something bittersweet.

But as with any Sayles story, that's only part of the tapestry. Nearby Lincoln Beach, which had been a center of black commerce during the era of segregation, is as rundown as Plantation Island and is home to an equally interesting assortment of characters. Desiree (Angela Bassett) returns, decades later, after leaving the town at 15, pregnant and in disgrace. Ironically, her mother Eunice (Mary Alice), has since adopted an adolescent relative who's always in trouble. And Desiree's anesthesiologist husband (James McDaniel) isn't wild about life in Lincoln Beach or his new dual status of trophy husband and role model.

There's more than this, of course, and it's probably more enjoyable if you simply let the parallel family intrigues overlap. Sayles is big on legacy, and he's one of our few directors who makes contemporary movies steep in the history of a place. Change will come, and it won't ever be easy, but if you pay attention to the landscape, as in so many of Sayles' films, like Passion Fish, Lone Star, City of Hope and Limbo, you'll find a colorful illustration of the clich & eacute; that you can't see where you're going unless you know where you've been.

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