Film Reviews: Wednesday, August 1, 2002
Sunshine State
Starring Angela Bassett and Edie Falco. Written and directed by John Sayles. Rated R.
Real Estate Sayles

An indie film giant misses Florida’s spirit in Sunshine State.


John Sayles’ colossal 1996 film Lone Star was a movie whose rural Texas setting formed the backdrop for an epic teeming with lively characters of widely varying ethnic and social backgrounds. Its story had a keen sense of how the past flows ceaselessly into the present. His latest work, Sunshine State, tries to be the same type of film transplanted to Florida. Sayles was an independent filmmaker before it was cool, and his intelligence, working-class sympathies, and humanistic treatment of his characters make him indispensable to American cinema. Unfortunately, his earnestness can get the better of him, and that’s part of what goes wrong for this movie.

It takes place in northern Florida, which is culturally more akin to the Deep South than are the other parts of the state. It’s set on the fictitious Plantation Island, a coastal area that Tallahassee’s land developers see as the potential site of a cash cow of a resort. The movie’s two central characters cross paths for the first and only time early in the film. Marly Temple (Edie Falco) runs a restaurant and motel established by her father. She doesn’t care much for her life, and she thinks hard when a real estate firm offers to buy her out. Desiree Perry (Angela Bassett) grew up in the island’s African-American enclave, but left town for a largely unsuccessful acting career after getting pregnant at age 15 and being sent away by her parents. She has returned home to introduce her new husband (James McDaniel) to her mother (Mary Alice), and she arrives just in time to field an offer from a rival company for her mother’s house.

The carefully drawn characters and the actors playing them are the best things here. Bassett does fine work as a woman whose issues have been roiling for 20 years. However, it’s Falco who really influences this movie’s vibe, despite a Southern accent that sounds dead convincing half the time but like Carmela Soprano the other half. She wears Marly’s disappointment well and attains a certain chemistry with Timothy Hutton, playing a landscape architect who strikes up an unlikely romance with her.

Sayles’ heavy-handed use of comic irony is a problem, though. The stories are broken up by interludes in which four old guys discuss Florida’s history and the environment while golfing at a country club. The most garrulous one (Alan King) concludes, “Nature is overrated.” Marly’s ex-husband tells her, “You can’t live in the past,” and then goes back to his job impersonating a Union soldier at a Civil War historical landmark. The perky civic booster played by Mary Steenburgen is too much of a one-note character, as well. The way the land development plot is resolved is one of the more shameless examples of a deus ex machina that you’ll see in this year’s movies.

The movie is pretty well put together and has an eye for the municipal corruption that frequently greases land deals. Still, the story’s low emotional wattage defeats Sayles’ storytelling style, which is designed to draw you in. The characters are interesting in and of themselves, but they would have been shown to better advantage in a volume of short stories than in a film. Sunshine State is a Florida orange with most of the juice squeezed out.

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