'The Hours'' can't pass by too quickly

Friday, February 14, 2003

Welcome to the cinematic equivalent of the worst women's studies course you never took.

Director Stephen Daldry's "The Hours" is an enigmatically dull, overpraised exercise so bloated by its own self-importance that it fails to achieve some of the most fundamental aspects of moviemaking.

1. To tell a story worth telling.

2. To populate that story with characters worth spending time with.

3. To make the result entertaining.

A trio of intersecting narratives follows three women in different time periods: novelist Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), a 1950s housewife (Julianne Moore) and a modern-day book editor (Meryl Streep). At the insistence of her husband, Woolf has recently relocated to the English countryside in an effort to avoid another nervous breakdown.

The housewife, Laura, has just started reading a copy of Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" -- a decision that does nothing to impede fantasies about leaving her spouse (John C. Reilly) and young son (Jack Rovello). Meanwhile, the contemporary Clarissa is caring for her former lover Richard (Ed Harris), a poet dying of AIDS.

Eventually, their stories come together -- kind of -- with a few suicides thrown in just to keep the plot moving. It's all orchestrated to the strains of Philip Glass' repetitive, go-nowhere score -- an arpeggio-heavy composition symbolic of this repetitive, go-nowhere picture.

Usually, a film's social or political agenda can be overlooked when critiquing it on an artistic level. But "The Hours" is so far removed from reality that it's impossible to relate to the proceedings.

Daldry ("Billy Elliot") envisions a world where EVERY woman is born both depressed and a lesbian. That's their natural state, and to deny it is to somehow rob them of their ultimate goal in life: to run away from their problems or kill themselves.

Men, by comparison, merely function as a vehicle that smothers women's lifestyle. It doesn't matter how kind, respectful or supportive they are within these relationships. In fact, the men in "The Hours" don't simply love their companions, they worship them. Apparently, that's just not good enough.

If the film had given these women any legitimate reason for their unhappiness -- even something cliche like domestic abuse -- the audience might be able to sympathize with their plight. Instead, the leads come across as whiny, idle-rich white ladies moaning about how stifling their pampered lives are, yet trying nothing to change that ... other than attempting suicide.

Here's an idea: Do something about it. Volunteer for charity work. Learn to play a musical instrument. Take up a sport. Start your own business. DO SOMETHING!

To be fair, Woolf (1882-1941) historically suffered from clinical depression. So at least mental illness can be blamed for some of her final decisions. But Daldry doesn't give any evidence that Moore's pivotal character suffers from the same condition. She just seems bored.

Please don't be bamboozled by the recent Oscar nominations, either.

ยข Find this movie's trailers, actor info, movie discussions and more on the Internet Movie DatabaseRating: * 1/2(PG-13)mature thematic elements, some disturbing images, brief language1 hour, 54 minutesSouthwind Twelve, 3433 Iowa

Moore received recognition in the supporting category despite the fact that her Laura is practically a nonentity. This isn't the first time the usually reliable actress (who landed a much-deserved leading nod for the superior "Far From Heaven") has resorted to this animatronic spin on humanity. She gave the same portrayal in both "Safe" and "Cookie's Fortune." It's time to play someone with a heartbeat.

Her fellow nominated Harris fares just as poorly. His performance can only be described as Dying Man with AIDS 101. The earthy actor brings nothing new to this archetypal role. And considering Streep's Clarissa is supposed to be the intimate soulmate of this man, it's a mystery why she can't figure out that he's about ready to defenestrate when the audience spots his impulse within seconds.

What is worth praising about "The Hours?"

It's shot well by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey ("High Fidelity"), and the period detail is mounted convincingly. The editing is outstanding, especially the splicing between the three eras during the title sequence.

Best of all, the film features Kidman, a versatile actress enjoying the richest roles of her career. The Australian brings depth to the mopey Woolf (despite the occasionally distracting fake nose she wears), and viewers will find themselves craving to return to her third of the storyline.

Kidman may win an Oscar for "The Hours," and in certain ways that wouldn't be so terrible. But that's all future audiences will be able to recall about this overhyped nothing of a film.