Sony // 1997 // 90 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // May 8th, 2000
Home for the holidays from hell.
The Myth of Fingerprints is an indie type film done with the money and backing of Sony Pictures, which makes it sort of an anti-indie indie. This is the feature film directorial debut of Bart Freundlich, who still managed to collar a few well-known names for a movie that is more about people than plot. I have to say though I think he is a bit spoiled for the indie director job, when he commented "It really is possible to make a movie for $2 million." Tell that to Robert Rodriguez and Joe Carnahan, who both made their first feature films for under 10 grand. At any rate, the film is about a family with several levels of dysfunction coming together for Thanksgiving dinner, with significant others and other baggage in tow. It worked for me on some levels but ultimately left me wanting...not more, just different. Sony Pictures Classics, a division of Columbia TriStar (or is it the other way around) has now released this film on DVD with a very respectable level of quality and treatment.
I'll talk about the story first, although it certainly doesn't all belong in this, the "what worked well" section. Noah Wyle, best known for television's big hit "ER," is the supposed star of the film, though ultimately Julianne Moore (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, The Big Lebowski) supplants him regularly. Wyle plays Warren, a young man full of insecurities, who comes home for a holiday after a three-year separation; "long enough to forget I shouldn't go." At the same time the other siblings come back as well.
Mia (Moore), a bitter and sarcastic woman who lets no one past her sharpened tongue arrives with boy toy Elliot in tow. Jake (Michael Vartan, Never Been Kissed, The Pallbearer, It Had to be You), more at ease and less conflicted than the other two, comes with his lover Margaret, played with a nice flair by Hope Davis (Arlington Road, Mumford). Still at home is the youngest daughter Leigh, played with a refreshing lack of neurosis by Laurel Holloman (Boogie Nights, Tumbleweeds, Chapter Zero). By this I mean her character doesn't seem to be neurotic, no slight meant on the actress herself. Neurotic might be too weak of a word for her father though, played by Roy Scheider (Jaws, 2010, The Rainmaker). Though he doesn't talk much, he gives a lot of looks and shows his lack of foundation with reality. Ultimately his character is the catalyst that causes most of the problems, both past and present, for the rest of the characters. I found his character horrid and his presence just brought down my view of the film and the world in general. My guess is that was the director's (who also wrote the screenplay) intent. Mom is played by Blythe Danner (The Prince of Tides, The X-Files, The Love Letter), who seems the quintessential Mom-figure, but somehow loves her husband.
The story is mainly a recital among the various relationships that are brought together. The only thing left is the resumption of the relationship between Warren and his ex-girlfriend, and the awful secrets of why they broke up before.
Some of the dynamics of these relationships are interesting. Some Indie film fans will find the more reprehensible characters played by Scheider and Moore the most interesting, but ultimately I found those of the few sane ones to be what made watching the film worthwhile. Laurel Holloman, Hope Davis, and Michael Vartan kept the film from becoming some neurotic mental-gorefest. Noah Wyle's character was at least sympathetic and his storyline was perhaps the only plotline I cared for.
Performances were strong all around. I had no problems with the quality of the effort of the acting anywhere in the film; only the characters they were forced to ably play. I shouldn't group all the characters into that category; I felt only sympathy for Elliot and Warren, and genuinely liked Leigh, Margaret, and Jake.
The disc is very well done. As usual per Columbia-produced discs, there is a beautiful anamorphic transfer, in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Unlike most Columbia discs, there is no pan-and-scan version on the flip side, which this reviewer does not miss at all. The widescreen picture is very nice, with good color and detail. Fleshtones are accurate, black levels fine, and there are no nicks or blips from the source film. Only some grain and some lack of shadow detail keep this from being without flaw. Overall a very nice, film-like look.
There is both good and bad among the extras. Both director Freundlich and cinematographer Stephen Kazmierski did the commentary track. I found it interesting, informative, and refreshing in its honesty as the two dared say when they were wrong or out of their depth. While I certainly disagreed with certain aspects I had a clear vision of what they were looking for with the film.
The soundtrack is only Dolby Surround, but no more was necessary for this dialogue-centric film. Unfortunately, dialogue wasn't as clear as I'd have liked. Even after turning the center channel up several decibels I still had to rely on subtitles a few times to understand the lines. There was pretty much no use of surrounds or subwoofer, but the front main channels opened up for the musical score, which was all I really expected for the rest of the soundtrack.
The other extras weren't so great as the commentary track. Only a trailer for The End of the Affair (1999), another Julianne Moore film, is included, and no trailer for this film. Oddly, considering the ensemble nature of the cast and some of the names involved, cast and crew info for only the director (with only one feature film to list) and Julianne Moore were included. Wholly inadequate.
I had various problems with the film itself, as I alluded to above. I understand where the director was coming from, but frankly I didn't like some of where he took me. In particular I think he gave tried to give too much sympathy for Roy Scheider's character, and I think his intentional lack of closure (he quoted, "Leave them like a punch in the gut") was simply wrong. I didn't feel like I'd been punched in the gut, but ultimately dissatisfied. Too much in the movie was either uninteresting or upsetting for me to feel like I either enjoyed or was enlightened by the film. One other area I will complain about was the musical score; in particular one French number seemed wholly out of place and jarring inside the movie.
One piece of information I was glad to get was the reason for the title. A fingerprint is something that is uniquely you and does not change in your lifetime, but change happens to everyone and that "you" changes with time. So the "myth of fingerprints" is that life does not change from the imprints it places upon you. A deep premise, with good intent on exposition, but I did not enjoy going through the film to find it. Some viewers will disagree with my opinion on the film. I've heard it referred to as The Big Chill for the '90s by one person. To me it didn't have nearly the charm or fascination, or the quality of dialogue of that other classic. But others might disagree, and those who like character study and do not care about the points I made should rent the film. For those who already know they like the movie the disc will likely satisfy.
Sony Pictures Classics is fined $50 for failing to make dialogue as clearly understood as they might. Otherwise I believe they can make a fine disc; the transfer was excellent and the commentary intelligent. Bart Freundlich is commended on a respectable first effort, even if I found it ultimately unsatisfying. That is in many ways a matter of taste, which of course differs. I wish him well for the future.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director and Cinematographer Commentary
* Cast and Crew Info