Nothing encapsulates the experience of watching a John Sayles movie so well as the scene midway through Sunshine State in which Edie Falco and Timothy Hutton have a breath-holding contest. In real time.
There they sit, two of the principals of Sayles’ latest low-key diatribe disguised as a film, staring at each other and not saying anything while the celluloid unspools. By God, you’re going to watch this, Sayles seems to be saying, and you’re going to enjoy it. There’s a point to it, and it’s good for you.
For years, Sayles has been one of Hollywood’s most popular script doctors—the guy you call when your $80 million blockbuster sounds like it was written by chain-smoking monkeys with typewriters. He fixes your plot and dialogue, and you pay him $1.5 million. Sayles then takes that money and makes his own movies: long, talkative, unimpeachably earnest pictures with an Important Point.
Sayles really hasn’t made an unwatchable movie yet, but he tends to hammer on that Point like a tenured professor who knows he doesn’t have to be interesting because he has the only opinion that matters in the room. If he wants to show two actors holding their breath, by criminy, he’ll do it. Every one of his films deals with the loss of innocence, whether it’s with our hero worship (Eight Men Out), our families (Lone Star) or our relationship with nature.
That’s the theme of Sunshine State, set in a fictional Florida vacation locale called Plantation Island. There are two beaches here: Delrona Beach, a home of clapboard motels and Formica seafood restaurants for vacationing middle-class white folks, and Lincoln Beach, a once-thriving hub for African-American tourists that has fallen into disrepair. Both beaches are being circled by developers who wear flashy suits and look like Miguel Ferrer, so you know they’re up to no good.
The story nominally revolves around Marly (Falco, of The Sopranos), a 30-something motelier drifting through adulthood. She runs into a friendly landscape architect (Hutton) who’s part of a group that wants to buy her place and build a big old development. There’s also an infomercial actress (Angela Bassett) who returns home to Lincoln Beach with her rich husband (James McDaniel) to see her mother (Mary Alice, very good) for the first time since she left as a pregnant teenager.
As in many Sayles movies, everyone is a supporting character to the Big Idea at the center of everything. That often short-circuits the dramatic tension that should exist in his films, even though his previous effort, Limbo, was actually quite thrilling. In Sunshine State, his point is that developers don’t have everyone’s best interests at heart. In one scene, a rich character somberly intones, “Nature is overrated,” and another replies, “But we’ll miss it when it’s gone.” If that’s your idea of insight, Sayles is right up your alley.
The screenplay, which uses family squabbling to fill the spaces in between Sayles’ environmental rhetoric, is as straight as Sayles’ intentions. It also has dreadfully dull stretches you’ll be able to spot whenever the regrettable Mary Steenburgen, as a busybody civic organizer, is on camera. The strongest performance in this huge cast is given by Falco, whose bleach-blonde hair is as weatherworn and faded as her shirts and her outlook on life. It’s masterful casting against type.
Bassett and Falco both take parts that diverge from their norms. Bassett actually plays a role in which she isn’t a bitterly wronged woman—she’s the woman who did the wronging. I was afraid she might get through an entire movie without lashing out vindictively at somebody, spewing anger and batting her eyes menacingly, but she has a third-act confrontation that keeps her streak intact.
Sayles may preach like a Methodist on meth, but his movies rarely feel pointless. If you like that brand of moral manipulation, Sayles’ Florida is the place for you.