Rated R - Running Time: 2:06 - Released 12/26/03

I get the feeling that writer/director Vadim Perelman didn’t expect his first movie, House Of Sand And Fog, based on the novel by Andre DuBus III and co-written for the screen by Perelman with the help of Shawn Otto, to receive Academy Award-level scrutiny. Although its two leads, Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly (both previous Oscar winners) give outstanding performances, and Kingsley has indeed been nominated for Best Actor, the film around them is not put together with the kind of care that normally goes into Oscar-nominated films. The result is a kind of embarrassing mixture of excellent acting and inept storytelling, with plot elements that contradict, characters that are difficult to like, and dialogue that is sometimes patently unrealistic. This is a story where nobody wins—including the audience, and the actors, who have labored hard over their parts but end up in a production that falls far below the level of their talents.

In what amounts to a story of petty vindictiveness that escalates to the point of near absurdity, we are introduced to Kathy (Connelly), a recovering alcoholic from San Francisco who has been sober for three years but who is deeply depressed after her husband left her eight months ago. She is also apparently jobless—at one point she says she is a “house cleaner,” but she is never seen cleaning any house, least of all her own. After getting a call from her mother (whom she has not told about her marital split) announcing an impending visit, she is evicted from her home for non-payment of business taxes. Although this is obviously a clerical error (she has never owned a business), she is declared guilty because she has ignored repeated mailed warnings, which she admits never having opened. Before she can turn around, her house is auctioned off to an Iranian immigrant named Massoud Behrani (Kingsley), a former colonel who was loyal to the Shah but fled Iran when the Ayatollah took power. So Behrani moves in with his wife Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo, also nominated for Best Supporting Actress) and teenage son Esmail (Jonathan Ahdout), and immediately begins fixing it up so he can resell it for several times the amount he paid.

While Kathy tries to seek legal counsel, she is befriended by a sheriff’s deputy named Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard), who himself is suffering in a bad marriage. Lester is so hot to get into Kathy’s jeans (which he soon does) that he not only leaves his wife and kids, but begins harassing the Behranis to the point of criminality (not to mention convincing Kathy to hit the bottle again), and the whole who-really-owns-this-house conflict becomes much more heated than anyone could have expected.

The acting by the leads in this movie is generally superb. Kingsley has a difficult task in making us care about him, since his part starts off as a nasty Iranian villain who runs Americans down and has little sympathy for Connelly’s character. Moreover, Kathy and Lester are both at first painted as “good guys” (she’s a victim of the system and he’s the thoughtful cop who helps her), but after they get together their behavior becomes so reprehensible that toward the end it is Behrani and his family who are the victims. But director Perelman continues to make us suspect Behrani, with ominous scenes of his scowling face and questions involving his background, spousal abuse, and the way other characters in his daily life interact with him. So who are we supposed to be rooting for here?

Besides the characterization issues among the leads, there are some terribly bad performances of supporting players—the family members Kathy speaks to on the phone sound unrealistic, both in their delivery and the content of what they’re saying. In addition to this, there are several instances of simply bad dialogue—could a law enforcement officer actually say “dispatch yourself to my office”—and keep a straight face? Then there are some timeline issues that confused me. The script implies that all the events take place over a two-week period, but this seems impossible given all the stuff that goes on. The eviction, Kathy moving out, the auction, the Behranis moving in, the construction work, the lawyer meetings, the affair...all this stuff is supposed to happen within 14 days? I suppose it’s possible, but I daresay two months would have made a lot more sense. A picky point, perhaps, but it proved a serious stumbling block to my ability to believe.

The actors involved in this production, at least the leading actors, are obviously serious about what they’re doing. But in this case, they seem to be far overqualified for the script they’re working with. ***

Copyright 2004 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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