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Case Number 02866

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The Invisible Circus

New Line // 2001 // 92 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Eric Profancik (Retired) // May 9th, 2003

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All Rise...

The Charge

"Walk into your fear; don't fight it."

Opening Statement

Based on the book by Jennifer Egan, The Invisible Circus was a mystery film for me; I had no idea what this movie was about or even who starred in it, even though it had sat on my screener pile for nearly five months. I didn't take the time to research it before playing it tonight, and I have to say that that was a refreshing experience. It's not often you decide to watch a movie and have absolutely no idea of what you're going to see. Of course we've all channel surfed to the same end, more or less, but somehow this felt different, as I never would have stopped on this movie during my channel hopping.

Afterward, I quickly perused the free 25-page excerpt on Amazon.com, and it was easy to see that many liberties were taken when the movie was translated to the screen. Not a bad thing, but sometimes you wonder what the film could have been like with a more exacting rendition (not along the lines of Harry Potter, though). Regardless, this movie isn't something I'd normally like to see—falling mostly into the "chick flick" category—yet there were many things I found enjoyable in this film.

Facts of the Case

Six years ago, Faith (Cameron Diaz, Charlie's Angels, Being John Malkovich) committed suicide, leaving her family devastated and without answers. Making it all the more difficult for her family is the fact that Faith was traveling in Europe, and it was in Portugal where she leapt off the side of a cliff, without witnesses and without any indication of how she arrived at that point. Phoebe (Jordana Brewster, The Fast and The Furious, The Faculty), Faith's younger sister, and her mother (Blythe Danner, Meet the Parents; To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar) have lived day-by-day without much discussion of that terrible event. But now that Faith has just turned eighteen, her thinking has turned to her older sister. Her thoughts are fixated on the events that could have caused her strong and vibrant sister to take her own life. With such a pervasive need, Phoebe realizes she must follow her sister's path from all those years ago. Against her mother's wishes, Phoebe leaves for Europe.

Going from Amsterdam to Paris to Portugal, Phoebe is able to retrace Faith's journey with the handful of postcards she received from her older sister. Each postcard is an incomplete snapshot of Faith's life, as it quickly spun out of her control. While in Paris, Phoebe finds Faith's old boyfriend, Wolf (Christopher Eccleston, The Others). With his help and guidance, she is able to fill in many of the gaps in Faith's life, but she is increasingly dismayed that the ghost she is chasing is nothing like what she imagined. In Faith's desire to make a difference during the turbulent Vietnam Era, she found herself wanting to help yet always ended up with the wrong crowd. Phoebe never imagined her sister's bleak past.

And as Phoebe arrives in Portugal, at the site of her sister's death, she finally discovers the truth of that horrific day when Faith believed that jumping off a cliff was the most logical choice. What Phoebe discovers will forever change her life too.

The Evidence

In reading those first 25 pages off Amazon, I developed a completely different vibe from the book than what I cultivated watching the film. Honestly, I prefer what I saw versus what I read, but judging the book on a few short pages simply isn't fair. I'm certain that, as in most cases, the book would be the far richer and rewarding experience of the two, if I were so inclined to finish the book. I am not.

This story of obsession, love, empowerment, rebellion, and adventure in the '60s and '70s has much potential, but it's greatly squandered on the screen. In this languidly paced story of Phoebe gaining her independence and maturity in her quest to resolve the demons from her sister's death, a significant problem arises within the middle third of the film. In this section, Phoebe has met Wolf, who now calls himself Christopher, and they are dancing around the topic of Faith. Every now and then, Christopher reveals a sliver of information from their travels and relationship together, thus expanding and altering all of Phoebe's conceptions of her sister. Slowly whittled away are the false and cherished memories of a sister who feared little and embraced the joys of life. With each revelation, Faith's dark history comes together, causing Phoebe to constantly reassess her sister. But Christopher doesn't share everything, making Phoebe's picture still flawed. The problem here is the way Christopher reveals the information. Why is he hiding this information from the family? Why continue her pain, especially now that she has traveled thousands of miles in search of the truth? In the end, there is a rationale for his ways, but he eventually disregards it without good cause. This dichotomy is disturbing considering the next facet of the story: a budding relationship between Phoebe and Christopher.

Much to my dismay, the two begin to develop an attraction towards one another. This doesn't make sense in the film because Christopher is already engaged, Phoebe is at least ten years younger than he, and Christopher was in an intense relationship with Faith. Having the two fall in love and consummate their feelings just feels dirty and wrong. It's a betrayal by both of them to the memory of Faith.

Another part of the why it feels "wrong" is that Jordana Brewster doesn't quite have the acting skills necessary for her leading role in this film. While she tries admirably, she doesn't have the talent necessary to be convincing. Now, the entire movie doesn't flop because some scenes are better suited than others to her innate talents. Also, there is no real chemistry developed between Brewster and Eccleston, and we're suddenly led to believe the two are in love? There's nothing leading up to that point to hint at or explain this occurrence. We can assume Phoebe is attracted to Christopher because of her sister, but what makes him want Phoebe over his fiancée?

But not all is lost in the acting department as Eccleston and Diaz turn in excellent performances. I was thoroughly surprised to see that Diaz can act well in a drama, as my memory of her is tainted by her romp in Charlie's Angels. She's utterly convincing in her portrayal of a woman who wants to make a difference yet stumbles in her attempts. This is certainly one of Diaz's best, if not best, onscreen performance.

What also saves the film is the simple yet beautiful cinematography. In using authentic locations in San Francisco, the Netherlands, Paris, and Portugal, the movie is a pleasure to watch. Each location is sweeping and picturesque, highlighting the distinctive personality of each country. Sometimes I like to believe that it's as simple as pointing and shooting, yet my Kodak® moments don't look anything like what some cinematographers can do. In conjunction with this, I'd also like to applaud the production crew for their choice of using true locations instead of "stand-ins." The real thing is always better, and Toronto could never convincingly pass for Amsterdam.

Overall, the direction of the film is simple but effective. There are no extraordinary or unique angles nor is there an overarching style to the film. However, there is one scene that stands out from the rest, and I don't know if this is an exact translation from the book or special to the film. At one point we witness a flashback between Faith and Wolf. Things quickly spiral out of control between the two, and Faith eventually pulls a gun on Wolf. We may have seen a scene like this a million times, yet in this instance, it was a fresh, intelligent, and realistic take on how a situation like this could develop and progress to the point of someone pulling a gun. It avoided every possible cliché, and I was truly impressed.

Does my recent praise continue on to the transfers? Yes, it does. Given an extremely limited domestic release, Los Angles, New York, and Sundance, The Invisible Circus was treated well in its move to disc. Though bare bones, except for a couple of trailers—The Invisible Circus, Human Nature, Storytelling, and Cherish—the movie itself was treated to solid transfers that every movie deserves. You are given a choice of either full screen or anamorphic widescreen. In choosing the latter, you'll get an excellent transfer that is clear and sharp, with rich, accurate colors and solid contrast. The only problem I saw was shimmering in just two or three instances, and it certainly doesn't distract. Other than that, the disc is free of any artifacting (considering the large amount of San Francisco fog or other smoke and haze-filled environments) or other transfer errors. Your only audio choice is a 5.1 Dolby Digital mix with true dialogue from the center, good punch from the subwoofer, and a nice mix of ambience from the surrounds. All in all, these are well done transfers on this "little film."

The Rebuttal Witnesses

The Invisible Circus is a touching and heartwarming story of a young woman's journey to bring closure to her family after the unexpected suicide of her sister. It's a glorious tale of an independent woman who travels alone and without fear through Europe. Jennifer Egan's first novel is accurately and splendidly brought to the screen with impressive acting by the cast. Each character was wonderfully portrayed allowing you to connect with their trials. It's a story that can enrich you and help those in their time of sorrow, a delightful and rewarding film of hope and discovery.

Closing Statement

Perhaps a telling sign of the overall weakness of this movie would be to relate what the title "The Invisible Circus" means. I can't. While I hope that readers and fans of Egan's work can explain what a "circus" represents in the story, I, as someone who watched the film, cannot. Obviously, the producers of this work were not able to adequately capture the essence of the story in their movie.

Perhaps instead there's an ending that gives you satisfying closure, and this would help dissipate your trepidation. No. The "here I am" ending seems completely disconnected from the film, for it does not reasonably connect Phoebe's journey to the scene. The film ends and you're at a complete loss.

While there are some redeeming qualities, I simply cannot recommend this film on the whole. With some problems in the acting, some implausibility in the plot, and apparent holes in the story, The Invisible Circus is an incomplete movie. It isn't able to fully weave its tale, and it leaves the viewer less than satisfied with their experience.

The Verdict

The court finds The Invisible Circus guilty of trying to convince us that Jordana Brewster and Cameron Diaz look even remotely similar and can pass as sisters. It is hereby sentenced to forty hours of community service for this minor transgression.

Case adjourned.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 95
Audio: 95
Extras: 8
Acting: 95
Story: 75
Judgment: 80

Perp Profile

Studio: New Line
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• English
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama
• Independent

Distinguishing Marks

• None


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