Things We Lost in the Fire **1/2

Posted: October 19, 2007

Susanne Bier is a bomb thrower. The explosives in the films by the Danish director are emotional and provoke torrents of tears, richly earned.

Bier's extraordinary melodramas include Brothers, the one about the woman blissfully married to one sibling but drawn to the other. After the Wedding, her Oscar-nominated saga of an industrialist and a social worker, explores their complex connections that are thicker than blood.

Things We Lost in the Fire is Bier's first feature in English and also the first in which she did not develop the screenplay. Like her Danish films, it is a story of what appears to be a perfect family dealing imperfectly with tragedy.

I wanted to love Things with the passion I have for Bier's earlier movies. Sadly, this weeper with Halle Berry as a widow reaching out to Benicio Del Toro, the pal of her husband's that she couldn't stand, lacks the urgency of her Danish films. When Bier drops the emotional bomb here, the shock waves come off like special effects rather than organic. The tears that come feel unearned.

Based on a script by Allan Loeb, recently anointed as Hollywood's "it" screenwriter, Things is the story of the Burkes, Audrey (Berry) and Brian (David Duchovny) and what happens after Brian's untimely death.

A "genius" Seattle real estate developer, Brian has remained close with Jerry (Del Toro), his childhood pal who studied law before escaping into drugs. Knowing that Brian would have wanted it, the grieving Audrey sends her brother to bring Jerry to the wake.

Bier, a talented director of actors who knows that body language is more eloquent than dialogue, gets a sensational performance from Del Toro, unshaven and unsmiling in his ill-fitting suit. If the Burkes organized home functions like a well-tended vegetable garden, chain-smoking Jerry is the invasive tobacco plant.

Bier's anxious, handheld camerawork perfectly captures Jerry's social anxiety. Her probing close-ups invite us to study the now sorrowful, now hopeful faces of her characters.

Audrey may dislike and mistrust Jerry, but in her grief she recognizes that they were both in love with the same man.

For Audrey and her inconsolable children, Jerry's memories of Brian bring the dead man back to life. She proposes a mutually beneficial recovery arrangement: Jerry can live in the garage, go through detox, help mend the Burkes' damaged hearts as they help give structure to his day.

While Bier's film is never boring, neither is it engrossing. Her sensitive handling of Jerry's Narcotics Anonymous program (where he meets the ever lively and lovely Alison Lohman) is emotionally satisfying.

But while Jerry fully emerges as a character, Audrey does not. I don't know why this is.

Because Bier is more interested in Jerry's story? Because Del Toro's extraordinary emotional range makes Berry's work seem one-note? Because Berry, looking even more ravishing than usual (despite the fact Bier asked her not to wear makeup), didn't connect to her character? You tell me.


Things We Lost in the Fire **1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Susanne Bier. With Halle Berry, Benicio Del Toro, David Duchovny and Alison Lohman. Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount Release.

Running Time: 1 hour, 58 mins.

Parents' Guide: R (drugs, profanity, mature themes)

Playing at: area theaters   


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/

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