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.