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Case Number 05268: Small Claims Court

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Lemon Sky

First Look Pictures // 1988 // 106 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // September 29th, 2004

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger has never actually cried tears of boredom before now.

The Charge

This is the movie where Kevin and Kyra hooked up.

The Case

Lemon Sky is a textbook case of why it is a bad idea to literally adapt stage productions for the screen. Film or television versions of plays often feel cramped, claustrophobic, or awkwardly blocked because the director gets stuck in the mindset of the stage. Film allows deeper exploration of space; it opens up the world.

In the case of Lemon Sky, director Jan Egleson is literally stuck in the mindset of the stage. The entire movie takes place on a soundstage set. It is filmed from the front, with very little variation in depth, scale, or perspective. There are even colored stage lights and fades to black between scenes. Jan set out to literally adapt Lanford Wilson's stage production for TV. He did so, and it is a spectacular failure precisely because he succeeded in his goals. We are locked in the prison of the set with no way to escape.

Wilson's play revolves around a collegiate teen named Alan (Kevin Bacon, Stir of Echoes) reuniting with his abusive, cheating, town-skipping dad, Doug (Tom Atkins, Lethal Weapon) some time in the '50s. Doug has set up a new life in So Cal with the trailer-fabulous Ronnie (Lindsay Crouse, The Insider), his two boys (played by Casey Affleck and Peter MacEwan), and two wards of the state. The first is Penny (Welker White, No Looking Back), a studious nerd. The other is Carol (Kyra Sedgwick, Secondhand Lions), a pill-popping slut. This sunshiny family will fight to stay together when Alan's presence introduces tensions, be they sexual, class-based, hormonal, or otherwise.

Lemon Sky has some things going for it. Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Tom Atkins, Lindsay Crouse, and the rest of the notable cast employ sensitive acting touches that sell us on the characters. The sense of trouble brewing is palpable, which is totally due to the actors. The final blowup between…well, everybody…is believable. In terms of pure acting mechanics, the cast does a fine job.

The set, about which Egleson gushes in his commentary, is a nice piece of work as well. Locales shift as easily as flipping a light switch through the magic of "scrim walls" or "squib walls" or whatever they call it when a thin sheet of material becomes solid with the right light.

The DVD presentation is average, with a director interview, deleted scene, still gallery, and trailer. The video quality is not bad for a TV-to-DVD transfer, lacking definition and contrast but otherwise artifact free. The soundtrack, sparse thought it was, transfers fine.

Lanford Wilson's script touches on heavy themes of identity, trust, family, and sexual identity, set within a basic conflict of class. It is a postmodern affair with shifting times and voices, which makes it an intellectual step above most TV movie fare.

Which brings us to Lemon Sky's problem: It is stupefyingly boring. Abjectly, incorrigibly, bone-achingly dull. Somewhere amid the tunnel focus on stagelike sets, mood lighting, and time-scene transitions, the director forgot that there was going to be a television (and now DVD) audience observing this thing. Had I seen this on the actual stage, with the energy of life, the resonance of voices, and the reflections of light, it might have connected. But as a movie, Lemon Sky's adherence to stage protocol throws up impenetrable barriers between "us" and "enjoyment."

Kevin Bacon narrates, setting the scene by describing a story he wants to tell. Only he doesn't describe the story. He describes the act of trying to describe the story, or merely the creation of the story, to others. But people go get coffee, or some other damn thing. We'll get back to that in a second, because now Kevin is sitting on a bar stool talking to the camera about how great and tragic it all was. (How tragic what was? Nothing has happened yet!) Okay, now we're back to the voiceover. And Kevin is hugging his dad. But he's not, really; he was thinking about hugging his dad, but they only shook hands. But his dad wasn't really there. Yet. But soon he is, and they hug and shake hands. And Ronnie, she's in the garden when they arrive. Does she really garden? Or does she want to make a good impression? It felt right to hug his dad and to shake his hand. And that's what I mean—he can't tell the story about the creation of the story.

If you had fun reading the above paragraph, and you think it was about something, then Lemon Sky might be for you. But if you didn't really know what was going on, and you ultimately didn't care, and you got kind of pissed at me for making you try to figure out inane musings…then you feel the way I felt watching this movie. No scene is allowed to actually play out. Time, people, realities, and everything else shift regularly, never allowing us to get comfortable with a scene or even know whether things are real. This isn't done in a mind-bending "twisty" way, it is done in a "Look, here I am—oh wait, ha-ha, I'm not even real" kind of way, which is really annoying.

A half hour in, the scene/time/reality had shifted 55 times, nothing of substance had occurred, and I checked the time remaining. One hour 16 minutes? I've only been watching for 30 minutes? It seems like hours! I began to cry inside.

It is difficult to explain the way that Lemon Sky drains your will to live. Perhaps it is the "score," which consists of periodic, random drumbeats. Maybe it is the jittery, jumpy, transitioning Kevin Bacon, who is here then there, then here and there simultaneously. It may be the stagelike manner in which the lines are read, which gives you the feeling that you are inside a small box at one end of a tunnel, watching the actors from far, far away as they deliver their lines—to an audience between themselves and you. It could be the "clever" way that nothing is solid. Perhaps it is the monologues, as random as the drumbeats, but just as frequent, which utterly subvert the flow of the movie. These things are all there, but they band together to thwart you with greater force.

I've seen bad movies, and this one has more ambition than most. It has a goal, the actors desperately want to make it work, and it is constructed cleverly. As far as bad movies go it is commendable for those reasons. Yet these lofty aims drain all form of entertainment from it, leaving us with an intellectual exercise in stage adaptation, removing even the shallow fun of making funny comments at Lemon Sky's expense.

When I listened to the director's interview, and watched him go on and on about the brilliance of the script and the fantastic execution of the scrib walls and how great everything was…all I could do was wonder if he realized that Lemon Sky is not enjoyable. And that's when it dawned on me that some people actually like this movie. It won a Special Jury Award at Sundance, garnered a decent-but-not-spectacular 6.0 at the Internet Movie Database, and has lots of high-profile blurbs associated with it. To those people who enjoy what I cannot see in this movie, you have my blessing. To me, Lemon Sky feels like nothing so much as a trumped-up high school play, misguidedly converted to the small screen. That may explain why it went from new release to Wal-Mart bargin bin in less than four months.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 22

Perp Profile

Studio: First Look Pictures
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
• Drama
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Additional Scene
• Director Interview
• Still Picture Gallery
• Trailer


• IMDb

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