Judge Clark Douglas has never been to Beautiful Ohio. He's stuck in Muggy Georgia.
A shining all-star cast in a touching coming-of-age story.
"We have a lot to learn from your generation."
Facts of the Case
Teenager William Messerman (Brett Davern, Player 5150) is a reasonably happy young man, but he's struggling to find his place in life, as so many teenagers are. His parents (William Hurt, A History of Violence and Rita Wilson, Jingle All the Way) are well-to-do intellectuals who make a valiant attempt to be as progressive and bright as possible. The couple often sits at the dinner table quoting Oscar Wilde and Albert Einstein to each other in a manner that lands somewhere between playful and smug. William also has trouble building a substantial relationship with his brother Clive (David Call, Evening), a mathematical genius who constantly seems to be enjoying his own private joke. To make matters particularly frustrating, Clive has invented a strange new language that he employs whenever he doesn't feel like answering a question directly (which is most of the time).
Clive's girlfriend is Sandra (Michelle Trachtenberg, Ice Princess), a friendly and smart girl who just so happens to be living in the Messerman family basement. She doesn't really have anywhere else to stay, so she figured she might as well live in her boyfriend's house. Mr. and Mrs. Messerman know nothing about this, and Sandra asks William not to say anything. William agrees, and makes a daily habit of bringing food down to Sandra. Slowly but surely, he begins to develop strong feelings for her, and it's obvious that she is beginning to feel the same way. The Messerman family looks as if it may be falling apart soon, but one can only speculate about what the precise cause will ultimately be.
Beautiful Ohio seems to be the victim of some unfortunate circumstances. The film began as a husband-and-wife collaboration between actress Hilary Swank (who produced the film) and actor Chad Lowe (who was making his debut as a director). By the time everything had been completed, Lowe and Swank were no longer husband and wife, a theatrical release continued to be delayed, and finally the film was quietly handed to IFC for a television premiere before shuffling on to DVD. I've scoured the Internet for details, but it's difficult to find a clear answer. Something certainly smells funny. How does a Swank-produced film starring William Hurt, Rita Wilson, Michelle Trachtenberg, and Julianna Marguiles not even manage to secure a limited theatrical release?
The proof may be in the pudding. Beautiful Ohio, to be quite honest, is a very disappointing film. It's obvious that Lowe had good intentions here, and the movie aims to be a compelling marriage between The Squid and the Whale and The Ice Storm, but it just doesn't work. Every time the film finally seems to find some footing, it misfires again and screws everything up. Lowe's direction is somewhat sloppy, the screenplay from author Ethan Canin (who also wrote the story the film is based on) works better as literature than as cinema, and the characters are somewhat poorly-defined.
The film takes much too long simply introducing us to these characters. The set-up scenes in the films I mentioned earlier were fascinating, here they feel like an endless prelude. The dinner table scenes manage to effectively let us know what kind of people the Messermans are (insufferably earnest intellectuals), but the scenes only manage to capture an aura. There is nothing specific enough to give these moments a feeling of individual merit.
There is only one genuine point of interest in the film, and that is slowly crumbling relationships within this family. Unfortunately, the film is nearly over by the time it actually gets around to dealing with this directly. After long, piddling sequences that ever-so-slowly deal the next card, this payoff is simply not satisfactory. Why is the least interesting material in this film expanded and given so much room to breathe, while the fascinating stuff is rushed along as quickly as possible? To make matters worse, the film tacks on a very forced conclusion that just doesn't seem to fit at all.
The transfer is a disappointing one. The level of grain here is surprising, and the image is quite flat. Blacks are not very deep, and the film generally just doesn't look so good. The film is set in 1973, but you have to remind yourself every once in a while. I don't know whether the budget or a lack of creativity is responsible, but the film frankly doesn't really look like a period piece. Audio is a mixed bag, with a unobtrusive yet uninteresting Craig Wedren score coming through nicely, while dialogue frequently sounds muffled. There are no supplements of any sort on the disc, which is unsurprising for a film with (be aware that I'm speculating here) a production history that likely had many troubles.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Most of the actors do a fine job here, particularly William Hurt and Rita Wilson. Hurt is one of cinema's great actors, but he hasn't been treated that way in recent years. He is often handed thankless roles these days, and I often wonder if anyone even remembers his work in films like Kiss of the Spider Woman, Altered States, Broadcast News, The Accidental Tourist, Smoke…wow, I could go on and on. Even so, Hurt manages to do the best he can with this role, creating a man who is fighting his gut instincts in an attempt to try a proper intellectual liberal. Wilson is precisely the sort of person that Hurt yearns to be, and feels far more comfortable in her own skin. Michelle Trachtenberg also impresses during her scenes, particularly later in the film, but I feel that her character is short-changed in the end.
A well-intentioned but poorly executed coming-of-age story, Beautiful Ohio is a disappointment. Catch it on IFC sometime if you're intrigued, but this weak DVD presentation of a weak film certainly isn't worth a purchase. Too bad.
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