It’s impossible for me to describe how good Julianne Moore is in Laws of Attraction, now available on dvd, without saying a few unkind words first, just when they’re least warranted.
Moore first gained major attention in the movies in Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street, a powerfully simple staging of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. In it she is, as always, stark staring gorgeous as well as highly skilled, but she’s also awfully self-conscious, tight-jawed. Her effects, such as her hard-edged laughter that breaks out like hysteria, seem especially calculated next to Brooke Smith, with her imperceptible transitions between emotions. Smith gives perhaps the most unaffected great performance in American movies, and I couldn’t help feeling that critics, responding like Dr. Astrov in the play, looked past her to Moore because of Moore’s looks.
Moore usually gets respectful reviews at least, and is also popular with her nominating fellow actresses in the AMPAS despite having extremely limited audience rapport. She’s a star for an upscale female audience–she wears beautiful clothes beautifully, her lustrous red hair and gleaming-bloodless skin look expensively maintained, she has flawless bearing and poise. Moore’s acting is intelligent but resolutely toward the cool end of the thermometer, and its limitations in Vanya on 42nd Street have become more pronounced with time and with a string of roles that play into those limitations.
In Todd Haynes’s Safe (1995) and Far from Heaven (2002), and in The Hours (2002; click here for my review), Moore’s emblematic specialty is that glassy, far-away, I’m-not-really-smiling smile that the conventional world has made her characters wear. This repression results from social forces that keep women cooped up in suburban homes where no one can hear them scream. If only they had the gumption to scream. (How can her teeny little stammering good-girl voice not be meant as a joke in Safe?) And they often look as if they’re wincing, or would be if their blood pressure were a little higher and they could just focus on the bad feelings. As these depressive entombed brides Moore doesn’t give us big moments but the suppression of them. The personal may be political in these movies, but it’s not especially personal.
The problem from a dramatic standpoint is that from the outset Moore’s characters read as incapable of happiness. Has any screen beauty ever come across as less susceptible to simple pleasure? So when things start falling apart it doesn’t seem as bad for them as it would be for a woman with a full range of responses. In Safe she plays a wife who actually does have a headache, every night, and who apologizes for it to her husband. (True, she may have an immune system deficiency, and how would you like that? But in the movie, with its attenuated rhythms and non-committal view of her ailment, its air of Stepford Wives alienation and stasis, her illness, whether organic or psychosomatic, symbolizes the sterility of suburban monogamy.) In these roles Moore is a victim, not a heroine. She fades and we’re supposed to identify with her although she hasn’t exerted herself much to find a more fulfilling way of living.
As a victim she’s a peculiar fantasy object, offering masochism without eroticism. (Even in The End of the Affair her nude sex scenes have a peculiarly objective quality, as if she could represent desire without quite embodying it.) Her kind of masochism is moral masochism–she’s the idealized supersensitive female, too delicate for this coarse-grained world. Her performances are meticulously controlled, her face a liquid crystal display screen of unspoken pain, but she’s limited by her own impressive control. At times she’s so purposefully tight her technique threatens to take her all the way around the board and back to Tippi Hedren, square zero.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) was one time Moore showed some energy, and it didn’t work, either. In her defense, the role of a woman who loves the dying old man she married for money so much she can’t live with the guilt is unplayable nowadays. It’s like a Joan Crawford role from the ’40s, the inherently noble fur-clad sinner who can find redemption only in death. The part shouldn’t burn that many calories–nobility just shone off the Crawford mask. Agitated to delirium, and throwing herself around the house, her attorney’s office, the pharmacy, Moore pushes her technique in a role so tacky there’s nothing technique can do for it. She’s aerobically mannered without being convincing at the simplest level, as a girl who netted a rich husband with sex. It’s a godawful performance, the most serious lapse in her natural good taste, which otherwise seems like the main thing holding her back.
I don’t blame her for The End of the Affair (1999), Neal Jordan’s overripe yet immaculately “literary” treatment of Graham Greene’s unmatched work of classy spiritual porn. It’s the story of an adulterous affair in London during World War II between a government official’s wife (Moore) and her novelist lover (Ralph Fiennes), whom she walks away from, without telling him why, when he’s injured in the Blitz and she promises God to give him up if he survives. The material needs a compulsive, trash-loving hand to keep the goo stirred up, but the movie is so earnestly narrated (and so insistently, lest we miss a particle of its richness) that Moore while unusually responsive nevertheless seems encased in it.
In her stunning period suits, with linings and kick-pleats in heated contrasting colors, Moore is an exquisite animated mannequin who suffers emotionally, morally, physically. Even the graphic sex scenes are too deliberate–the movie uses them to romanticize the characters’ religious torment. The lovers are miserable and yet so dang glamorous the movie seems to think we’ll envy them. You and I would just be screwing around on the side but when these two go at it they feel the earth move, and then heaven itself. (They tempt Fate, which deigns to respond.)
It plays not like a recreation of, but an artifact from, the past, one of those movies like The Garden of Allah, Camille, Waterloo Bridge, Now, Voyager, Casablanca, Brief Encounter about great yet impossible loves. So why isn’t it fun? The whole thing is beyond purple and yet so careful and reverent you can’t even enjoy it as camp. (It could work if they just pulled back a bit from the material–let the sheets dry before waving them like banners–and played into the irony of the situation. But that wouldn’t appeal to the English Patient crowd it’s targeted at. For all the wit, I didn’t laugh once.)
Altogether The End of the Affair adds to the impression that it would be futile for Moore to work in a brisker popular form, but that’s exactly what she does in Laws of Attraction, to spectacular effect. (Not that it was popular, but who can solve that mystery?) What’s perfect for her is that the movie uses manic farce to crack the self-possession that usually keeps her so remote from us.
Her character Audrey Woods is a professional correlative of Moore: a top-shelf, Yale-trained, Manhattan divorce attorney who is too much of a control freak to have a romantic life. (In other words, she’s playing the kind of woman most likely to identify with her as an actress.) In a high-profile case of the kind she’s never lost, Audrey is thrown by the deceptively rumpled, low-key style of opposing counsel Daniel Rafferty (Pierce Brosnan), who enjoys discomposing her as they subsequently face off in a series of courtroom battles and subsequent media interviews (in which they speak in code to each other through the camera). They fall in love while breathing the toxic fumes of one failed marriage after another. They just might stand a chance–they’ve done all their fighting right upfront.
It’s best to say outright that Laws of Attraction isn’t close to perfect. If the details of the law and courtroom procedure and professional ethics strike you as odd (e.g., an attorney offering to settle a case for the amount of his own fee), the safer guess is that the screenwriters are just making shit up. On the other hand, much of the comic writing is first-rate, but not all of the lines or situations are as good as the best ones. And Michael Sheen and Parker Posey play a divorcing rock-star couple in a style that doesn’t suit the movie and is grating in itself. (Posey, the most fearless comedienne of her generation, continues to baffle mainstream moviemakers.)
More problematic is that while Daniel falls for Audrey immediately, and keeps coming at her, that kind of amorous drive is beyond Brosnan, all the more so because it has to be inextricable from the competitive lawyerly tricks he plays on her. Daniel has to be anarchic, impulsive, manipulative, passionate, and steadfast. Brosnan, who doesn’t have a star persona but doesn’t fuse with his characters, either, isn’t centered enough, isn’t present enough, to be the embodiment of headlong romantic spontaneity. (It would have been a nifty, unironic pendant to George Clooney’s peerless performance in the Coen Brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty last year.)
Still, Brosnan is good at slyness and serves as a foil to set off Moore’s tightly-wound, nutcracking A-student attorney. (She lays out an array of colored pens to take notes during trial and you know each color has a very specific application.) Frances Fisher as Audrey’s 56-year-old mother, still very much interested in whatever game is afoot and dismayed by her stay-at-home daughter, also helps to bring Moore out by contrast. Fisher’s smirk is the mother’s sign of recognition that as difficult as life is, as much doing as it takes, it’s still full of unexpected and intriguing opportunities. She may be a high-maintenance witch at some level (she objects to being called “Mom” in public), but she’s right about her daughter, who should be taking a chance with Daniel, especially since she wants to, rather than sitting at home eating junk food and watching him on TV. (Fisher is teasingly smooth and has never been more effective.)
What’s amazing is seeing Moore use the energy wasted in Magnolia to particularize the fearful expectation behind that glassy smile–she loses her composure time after time with a slapstick jolt. In the opening sequence, for instance, Audrey reassures her client with professional compassion that a last-minute switch of the other side’s attorney can only be a good thing for them. The movie then cuts to Audrey calming a panic attack in a bathroom stall by stuffing a Hostess Sno Ball into her mouth. It isn’t just the juxtaposition that’s funny, it’s that Moore makes the jump without losing her highly articulated skill. (She seems to be able to roll her eyeballs separately.)
Losing it with new variations on her style, Moore is like Julia Roberts gone dizzy in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) but with the pointed technique of a stage-trained actress. And she’s brittle without seeming as damned fragile as she usually does. Plus, comedy extends her emotional range at the same time it limbers her up physically. In Laws of Attraction her disappointment is grounded in palpable romantic and sexual longing. Audrey’s not just another frozen sufferer; she may be a high-powered control freak, a priss with only a professional interest in her own glamor, but she’s averse to emotional risks not because she lacks feelings but just the opposite. In the course of the movie she changes from a woman who maintains perfect control in public and private to a woman who stands to lose something personal she can’t bear to lose, and for once I was able to identify with her. This is the best female-yuppie comedy since Diane Keaton was startled back to life in Baby Boom (1987), but it’s also as shrewdly judged a use of an actress’s dominant characteristics to enliven her screen image as any since Bette Davis put her melodramatic punctuation to comic use in All About Eve (1950).
Currently, Moore can be seen in a much more financially successful movie, Joseph Ruben’s The Forgotten, which, though a trashy thriller, is a return to the morgue slab for her as an actress. She plays a mother whose son died in a plane crash but who comes to suspect something more nefarious, otherworldly, in fact, when her mementoes of the boy and other people’s memories of him start disappearing. To boil it down, it’s a chivalric romance in which the female knight’s sole, but invincible, weapon against the evil wizard is maternal love.
The movie should have more grip because this is one way in which we feel a woman’s power is greater than anything a man can oppose to it. The story should come off as the form of female romance, if only we sensed that science fiction had enabled the makers to strip movies like Stella Dallas and Now, Voyager and Imitation of Life and Mildred Pierce and To Each His Own and, more recently, Lorenzo’s Oil to their resilient generic bones.
The critics haven’t picked up on the fact that it’s a quest romance, but the moviemakers certainly knew: the alien-run airline Moore’s son flew on is called QuestAir. Which makes it surprising as well as a shame that they don’t do more with the romance narrative. Even in terms of excitement the movie would be better if it broke the conflict down into separate battles that brought out distinct aspects of maternal love in scenes of mounting tension (and perhaps offered evidence of its darker forms for contrast, e.g., covering up a son’s crime, as Edith Evans does so sensationally in The Last Days of Dolwyn (1949), flooding an entire village to hide the evidence). Anything to vary this simplest of romances a little and give it some shape. (If the narrative were worked out more thoroughly you’d pay less attention to such idiotic details as the fact that aliens who can erase human memories are still subject to bankruptcy proceedings.) But the movie puts too much emphasis on the mere plot secret that extra-terrestrials are behind it all, on the shocks (people sucked instantaneously off the face of the planet), and on Moore at her least multifarious. The only time she seems like a real person is when her character pretends to be someone else.
Which isn’t to say Moore sits down on the job, but rushing about doesn’t do any more for her in The Forgotten than it did in Magnolia. The National Security Administration is in league with the kidnaping aliens, and a suspicious New York cop is on the trail of the jurisdiction-jumping NSA, so, after Moore has run from her husband and her shrink who want to institutionalize her, she runs from the NSA officials and from the cops. And runs and runs. (That’s really her running, too.) Finally, when she’s face to face with the chief alien, possessor of horrifying supernatural powers, she tries to run from him. This showdown is the moment to reveal the full majesty of her maternal instincts, but why dramatize your premise when you can blow the windows out of an abandoned warehouse instead? The Forgotten is bad news, but the good news is that until I saw Laws of Attraction I wouldn’t have thought they were wasting Moore as much as they are. Now I know.
For the record, Joseph Ruben has directed some wonderfully entertaining movies, including Dreamscape (1984), starring Dennis Quaid; The Stepfather (1987), the most characterful of serial-killer movies, with a brilliant Terry O’Quinn as the wily, straining-to-be-normal psycho; True Believer (1989), starring James Woods and Robert Downey, Jr. in the jauntiest of uncovering-a-coverup movies; and Return to Paradise (1998), an earnest romance in which Anne Heche deceptively seduces Vince Vaughn into doing the right thing in an international crisis. (She’s a temptress who turns out to be the damsel in distress–she uses foul means to get the reluctant knight to do fair work.) Return to Paradise is underpopulated by comparison to the Humphrey Bogart pictures it resembles, Casablanca (1942) and To Have and Have Not (1944), but it has electric conversational shifts and the stars’ performances are, if less iconic, more believably urgent than in those old standards.
To see intelligent, far more positive reviews of Moore’s performances, try Stephanie Zacharek’s Salon review of The Forgotten, David Edelstein’s Slate review of Far from Heaven, or Michael Sragow’s Salon review of The End of the Affair. There’s also a compilation of review sources at Julianne Moore Is God (last updated in 2002).
And finally: in real life Julianne Moore fights scary aliens on another front as well.
You can find this review and a lot besides at The Kitchen Cabinet.
Alan Dale is the author of What We Do Best: American Movie Comedies of the 1990s and Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.