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LaBute disappoints, but 'Sara' meets expectations 

Neil LaBute must have been tuning in to a lot of daytime television over the last couple of years, because I have to assume that anyone who has undergone this kind of career makeover must have been watching dogs get turned into beauty queens on Maury Povich on at least a semi-regular basis.

            The talented writer-director has made some of the most brutally cynical films and plays in recent memory, but his latest --- Possession --- is a period romance based on a popular gooey novel.

            It's as much of a 180 as a filmmaker could take, especially when you consider LaBute's first two films (In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors) were fucked up enough to make his third (black comedy Nurse Betty) seem like the Feel-Good Movie of the Year. I couldn't have been more surprised if Vin Diesel had announced he'd be working for scale and improvising his lines in the next Mike Leigh film.

            If you were to chart the maliciousness of LaBute's films, the graph would look something like what the stock market has been through over the last year. He penned Men and Neighbors, and co-adapted Betty from somebody else's story. LaBute co-adapts Possession (with David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones), but this time the source is A.S. Byatt's Booker Prize-winning novel (she's also responsible for Angels & Insects). The further he gets from penning his own original material, the lighter (and lamer) it gets.

            I have not read the novel, but from what I understand, Possession practically begs not to be adapted into a film. The story parallels the romance between a pair of present-day poetry scholars (Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart) with that of the very 19th-century poets upon which they have based their entire careers (Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle).

            Possession opens with American-in-England fellowship student and Randolph Henry Ash-expert Roland Michell (Eckhart) unearthing a pair of Ash's letters in a dusty old book. They appear to be love letters and, though it's unclear to whom they were written, Roland is intrigued, as Ash was known to have been a loyal, devoted husband.

            Instead of turning the potentially groundbreaking letters over to the proper authorities, Roland swipes them and, theorizing they may have been written to a lesser-known poet named Christabel LaMotte, makes a beeline to see the legendarily dowdy Maud Bailey (Paltrow) who is the foremost authority on LaMotte's career. Maud, like every other snooty Brit he has encountered, looks down her nose at Roland and laughs off his suggestion (this is the only part of Possession that comes close to seeming like a real LaBute film). After all, Ash (played by Northam in flashback) was a family man, while LaMotte (Ehle) was a virtuous feminist long believed to have been a lesbian.

            Despite her disbelief in Roland's theory, Maud agrees to pursue the lead, and the two fall in love every step of the way as they uncover clue after clue about the lovers of yore. Possession keeps flopping back and forth between the present-day storyline and the one that occurred in the exact same locations of the sumptuously photographed (by Good Will Hunting's Jean-Yves Escoffier) English countryside back in 1859.

            Now I know some of you are thinking, "Paltrow and Eckhart are supposed to be geeky academics?" It's a very tough idea to swallow, unless all London libraries come equipped with the Nautilus equipment necessary to acquire abs like the ones Eckhart shows off. These two characters ought to be swallowing each other's retainers, or having their moments of passion interrupted by an untimely asthma attack. And here's a free tip for all filmmakers: pulling Paltrow's hair into a tight bun does not suddenly make her look like a repressed old maid.

            LaBute has directed previously unheralded actors to acclaim in his first three films (Eckhart in Men, Jason Patric in Neighbors and Renée Zellweger in Betty), but everyone here is almost ridiculously flat. Though he's certainly no worse than any of his co-stars, Eckhart has been receiving the majority of everyone's scorn. Most are pissed off because his Roland wasn't an American in the book, while others think the only reason he was cast was because of Hollywood nepotism (he has been in all of LaBute's films, but the director swears he didn't change Roland's nationality just so he could employ Eckhart). Making Roland an American did cause parts of Possession to feel like more a fish-out-of-water story than it should have.

            As much as I disliked Possession, I was quite relieved nobody fell through a secret portal and hurtled through time only to fall madly in love with Meg Ryan. There are other redeeming qualities about the film, including the aforementioned cinematography, the relatively short running time (Byatt's novel could easily have been dragged out into a three-hour-plus yawner), and the way LaBute crafted the transitions between the two stories (though Saul Rubinek did a much better job in Jerry & Tom).

When more time is spent working on a film's opening credits than its script, you know you've got trouble. When the star of a movie has to check himself into rehab in the middle of production, you know you've got trouble. There are probably many other witty things in this vein that I could say about Serving Sara, but I'm not going to bother wasting any of my precious time trying to think of them. Sara's filmmakers put so little effort into conceiving their picture, why should I outdo them?

            Sara is about a New York City-based process server named Joe Tyler (Matthew Perry) who, as the film opens, displays his unique talents by crashing an illegal mob-run casino in order to serve a Mafia boss (Joe Viterelli). Joe works for the shuckin' and jivin' Ray (an embarrassing Cedric the Entertainer) and used to be the boss's go-to guy, but that Number 1 Son role has been assumed by Tony (Vincent Pastore), who has secretly been tipping off Joe's marks to make it seem like his coworker is a less efficient employee.

            When Ray lands an important case that will most likely lead to more business, he's not sure to which of his underlings he should assign the task. Instead they fight over the mark, a very pretty Englishwoman named Sara Moore (Elizabeth Hurley) who is in New York and is about to be slapped with a divorce suit by her rich Texan husband (Bruce Campbell). Eventually Joe finds Sara and tries to serve her with the papers, but she proposes an interesting plan ...

            Apparently, because of the difference in the divorce laws of New York and Texas, Sara won't get a dime from her ex if she is served first. Yet if she can somehow convince Joe to serve her husband first, she'll get half of his fortune. Since this happens just 30 minutes into the film, we know Joe will say yes, and we have a pretty good idea about how the rest of Sara will play out (60 minutes: Joe and Sara start to warm up to each other; 90 minutes: Oh my God! They're soooo perfect for each other!).

            Sara is directed by Reginald Hudlin (The Ladies Man) and written by Jay Scherick and David Ronn, who have also penned the upcoming I Spy remake. I can practically hear myself not laughing already.

Interested in raw, unedited movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy www.sick-boy.com, or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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