Film Reviews: Wednesday, August 27, 2003
Starring Emmy Rossum and Mary McDonnell. Written and directed by Alan Hruska. Rated R.
Lawyered Up

A coming-of-age story and a bright star get lost amid the deeply confused Nola.


Emmy Rossumís singing voice is a thing of wondrous beauty. You probably remember the then-15-year-old actress in the 2001 film Songcatcher, playing a 19th-century Kentucky girl whose voice gains the attention of a musicologist. Rossum sings a wistful ballad over the opening credits of her current film Nola, and itís an immensely pleasurable way to start things off. Her instinctive sense of melodic line and unfussy but flawless diction make her songs come out in clean, sharp detail. Her musicality only enhances the golden, burnished tone of her voice, twangy and substantive in the way that LeAnn Rimesí is, but sweet in all the places where LeAnn is brassy.

Here she plays Nola Keynes, an aspiring singer/songwriter who flees her Kansas home because her mom has a drug habit and her stepdad hits her. She arrives in New York with all her possessions in her backpack, looking for her biological father. For the first 15 or 20 minutes, this movie seems like itíll turn out OK. The scenes in which Nola scraps for a job and a place to stay while trolling around the East Village feel somewhat real. (The New York locations help.) First-time filmmaker Alan Hruska refreshingly doesnít make his main character into a wide-eyed innocent just because sheís from Kansas.

After that, however, the movie takes a disastrously wrong turn by having Nola become a personal assistant to Margaret (Mary McDonnell), the founder of a high-priced escort service. Worse, one of the serviceís transvestite hookers (Michael Cavadias) beats up a john (Thom Christopher) in self-defense, and the customer turns out to be a billionaire media magnate. What starts out as a coming-of-age flick turns into a low-rent version of something between a legal drama and a conspiracy thriller, and Hruska canít seem to decide whether his villain wants to kill the main characters or just sue them into bankruptcy. Either way, a jaded newspaper reporter (Steven Bauer) and a directionless law student (James Badge Dale) become involved in completely unrealistic ways. The movie bogs down in contrived courtroom scenes. Hruska spent decades as a New York City trial attorney before becoming a filmmaker, and, sadly, the guy writes like a lawyer. The early scenes have an arch tone that passes for amusing, but as the movie progresses, the dialogue gets increasingly clotted with jargon and philosophical debates framed in legalistic terms. At the movieís climax, just when things seem to have leveled off, Nola goes undercover as one of Margaretís girls and encounters the bad guy wearing a diaper and demanding to be spanked, and the movie lets out a big thud as it hits the bottom.

Nola is strongly reminiscent of a Hollywood movie from three years ago called Coyote Ugly, and not just because Emmy Rossum looks like that filmís star Piper Perabo. Itís also about a struggling musician in New York, and this movie might have saved itself had it been more about the music. After that song over the initial credits, Rossum sings only one more song at the end. That isnít enough. This movie needed to be more like Coyote Ugly. Now if youíll excuse me, Iím off to add that to the list of sentences I never thought Iíd write.

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