Screen Media // 2008 // 103 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 29th, 2010
A lost screenplay is brought to life.
"You accuse me of being a thief?"
Fisher Willow (Bryce Dallas-Howard, The Village) is a young southern debutante who has just returned from overseas. Despite her wealth and good looks, Fisher is generally disliked by most who know her. In order to impress her friends and appease the concerns of her Aunt Cornelia (Ann-Margret, Tommy), Fisher determines to hire a respectable young man to pose as a suitor. She chooses Jimmy (Chris Evans, Sunshine), the grandson of a former governor but the son of an insane mother (Barbara Garrick, Far From Heaven) and an alcoholic father (Will Patton, Remember the Titans). Jimmy finds Fisher a somewhat frustrating young woman to be around, but accepts her proposal and goes along with the deception for a while. However, when Fisher loses a teardrop diamond earring valued at $5,000 and accuses Jimmy of stealing it, things go south.
To appreciate what The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond is attempting to do, you need to know a little bit about its history. The screenplay was written by the late, great Tennessee Williams back in the 1950s. It was a story he intended specifically for the cinematic medium, and the writer had suggested that Elia Kazan direct the film. For whatever reason, the project never happened, and Williams' screenplay sat on the shelf for over 50 years. Not long ago, actress/director Jodie Markell (Big Love) decided to rescue the script with a faithful, old-fashioned adaptation that would stay as true as possible to Williams' original intentions. The result is fascinating as a study of Hollywood history, but does it work as a movie? Sadly, not quite.
Performing Tennessee Williams can be a difficult proposition. His dialogue, like that of many other great writers, cannot simply be recited. There's a certain rhythm to his words; they're often designed to be unspooled in a carefully measured southern drawl. Not long ago (and for reasons too complicated to explain at the moment), I was required to memorize a selection from Williams' The Glass Menagerie. Learning the dialogue was a fascinating experience, as the words sounded messy and poorly-organized until you delivered them correctly. It gave me greater respect for the writer's talents than I had ever had before. I think that the makers of The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond are well aware of this fact, and I fear that their awareness of it is what caused one of the film's biggest problems.
It's the same problem that has plagued certain other literary adaptations throughout the history of cinema: too much reverence for the source material. Now, bear in mind that such reverence is something to be praised in most areas, but actors should be wary of it. Sometimes, when one realizes they are uttering the words of a great legend, of someone respected and admired by many across the world, there is a fear of not doing justice to their words. So, the dialogue is delivered in a meticulously contemplated manner, as the actor will do everything within their power to be sure they are delivering the words with the appropriate level of respect. Unfortunately, this can cause the performances to feel artificial and staged, giving us that "living museum" sort of feel (something that Kenneth Branagh has specifically attempted to avoid in all of his Shakespeare adaptations).
It's undoubtedly Tennessee Williams, but too much life has been sucked from the words by the manner in which the film is staged. The screenplay offers wit and passion, which the film attempts to respond to by mimicking the way films of the '50s handled such wit and passion. In other words, they aren't engaging the material directly but rather attempting to imagine how someone else might have engaged the material, leaving us with a considerable sense of disconnect. This is most noticeable in the performance of Chris Evans, doing his absolute best to play the sort of role Paul Newman would have taken on at that point in his career (something like From the Terrace comes to mind). But there it is: it feels like he's attempting to do what someone like Newman might have done with rather than just making the role his own.
However, in fairness to Evans, Markell, and everyone else, the source material is hardly a flawless base from which to work. The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, for all of its distinct charms, is no A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It's an awkward, clunky story that starts out well enough but wanders around through a series of unconvincing melodramas during its final half-hour. In this instance, some moments that feel off are entirely due to Williams' screenplay, which perhaps didn't get made back in the '50s because no one felt there was any urgent need to make it. To a certain extent, I'm glad that it finally has been made (if only to preserve that generous handful of delightful Williams dialogue on celluloid -- "Hold your arms out like you're hanging on a cross. Okay, now try not to suffer on it so much"), but this film and script will always ranks as minor Williams.
The DVD transfer is decent, if hardly spectacular. The standard-def format suffers in particular when the title card appears, as the ornate design of the font can't be successfully conveyed by the transfer. Indeed, the film is visually ambitious throughout and probably fares much better in hi-def, but I suppose the DVD will suffice for those not HD-enabled. Flesh tones are warm and natural, blacks are deep and detail is sufficiently solid. The audio is low-key but clean and clear, throughout. Supplements include a 12-minute "Behind the Scenes" featurette, a 13-minute "Conversation with Jodie Markell" and a trailer.
A couple of key performances shine through despite the film's problems. Bryce Dallas-Howard actually does manage to make the Williams dialogue her own most of the time, turning in a surprisingly energetic performance that stands as the best thing she's done outside of her sublime Rosalind in As You Like It. In addition, Ellen Burstyn (The Exorcist) aces a lengthy single scene, demonstrating the sort of raw, intimate passion that should have fueled the entire movie.
A neat idea turned into a disappointing film. Too bad.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Screen Media
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (CC)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes