Judge Geoffrey Miller spent all of last November trying to figure out the various plot twists in this indie thriller.
Missing Friends? Just think of this as "The One Where Monica's Boyfriend Gets Murdered."
Of all the leading ladies from Friends, Courtney Cox is the one who has struggled the most to make the transition to the big screen. Jennifer Aniston parlayed her girl-next-door image to mid-level box office success; Lisa Kudrow has carved out a niche as a respected character actress. On the other hand, Cox's only notable movie role was in the Scream trilogy. Her brief appearance in Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" video is probably better known than the rest of her films combined. November is a marked departure from her previous work, a psychological thriller in which she plays a leading dramatic role. Her strong, confident performance proves that she has the acting chops to take on meatier parts, but it's her bad luck that the movie as a whole is lackluster.
Facts of the Case
Sophie Jacobs (Cox) is a photographer and teacher, living with her boyfriend Hugh (James LeGros). On one fateful night, November 7, her whole life changes. She's waiting in the car as Hugh goes into a convenience store to grab her something to eat; he never comes out. An armed robber enters the store and kills him. In the wake of this tragedy, Sophie tries to come to grips with losing the man she loved and the guilt over having an affair with her co-worker, Jesse (Michael Ealy). As unexplainable things keep popping up, she starts to wonder what the real truth is.
It's been over 50 years since Rashomon introduced the idea of telling a story from multiple points of views, rewinding to the beginning to repeat key events in different ways. Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece wasn't doing anything that hadn't been done in literature or theater, but the way it adapted its storytelling technique to the cinematic art form was revolutionary. November is yet another movie to bear its influence, with a story structure divided into three segments, roughly 20 minutes apiece, that cover a pivotal day in Sophie's life. Rashomon isn't the only film the highly derivative November borrows from, but it's the most immediately recognizable structural reference point. It's too bad that choosing the right influences doesn't always make for good filmmaking.
The first segment, "Denial," starts with Hugh's murder and follows the aftermath as Sophie tries to pick up the pieces. It's also where the scenes we see repeated—a visit to her psychiatrist (Nora Dunn) and lunch with her mother (Anne Archer)—are first played out. She slowly descends into madness as strange occurrences take over her life. Every possible eerie cliché is trotted out. A picture of the crime scene shows up on a projector while she's teaching—spooky! Her neighbor is banging on the ceiling even though she isn't making any noise—creepy! Someone who sounds suspiciously like her dead boyfriend calls her—oh no! Unless this is your first movie, you've seen this all before and done a lot better too.
In the second segment, "Despair," Sophie is the one who enters the convenience store as it's getting robbed, but she survives by hiding in an aisle. She's dealing with the trauma, but the weird horror overtones of "Denial" are mostly gone. With Hugh still alive, this middle section explores Sophie's relationship with him in more detail. The focal point is Sophie's affair and her coming clean with Hugh about it. Delving into the psychological consequences of infidelity, "Despair" is the subtlest segment and also the one that feels the least indebted to its influences.
"Acceptance," the final segment, begins with Sophie hurting herself in a fall, then being helped up by Hugh. She has already confessed to him that she has had an affair, but they're reconciled. He's moving in with her again, and both are very happy to be back together. It's the only segment that ends with the pivotal visit to the convenience store, where Sophie finally learns her ultimate fate. Although the film is barely an hour long, it gets tedious by this point; there's only so many times the same scene can be repeated with slight alterations before it becomes wearisome.
While I was watching November, I couldn't help but think to myself, "At what point did it become acceptable for psychological thrillers to make no sense?" If I had to make a guess, it was probably somewhere around the time when Mulholland Dr. came out. The lack of clear resolution is profound in that film, but it was only one part of what drove it. Mulholland Dr.'s allure lies in the way director David Lynch creates a dream world that operates on its own set of rules, which seem strangely logical even without an obvious explanation. Since then, every indie hack seems to think he or she can recapture its essence by throwing together some random disturbing imagery and masking it in feigned intellectualism.
November keeps the confusion of Muholland Dr., but lacks everything else that it made so memorable. It's in love with its own ambiguity, substituting meaningful symbolism with a hollow façade. It's also shamelessly derivative of other films tackling similar territory, with less successful results than the originals. Even the main thematic conceit used to tie the film together—the use of photographs to capture important moments—is lifted from Memento. The film meanders around, failing to build atmosphere or suspense because it's too busy trying to make something significant out of so little. Yes, there is something of a final "a-ha!" moment at the end, but it's an unsatisfying, obvious cop-out that only drives home just how useless all the pretentious tripe that preceded it was.
Director Greg Harrison, whose only other film to date is the rave-culture drama Groove, has yet to outgrow his influences. David Fincher's work has clearly made an impression on Harrison, particularly in his use of dark, monochromatic coloring (some scenes are nothing but shades of green or blue) and lightning fast cuts. Artistic merits aside, November is incredible from a technical standpoint; it's impossible to tell that this micro-budget indie was made for just $300,000 using cheap mini-DV cameras. It has a slick, professional look, with some impressive tricky shots and none of the usual indie amateurishness. Credit must go to cinematographer Nancy Schreiber, who justly won an award at Sundance for her work. For better or worse, the movie is a shining example of how the DV revolution has been a democratizing force in filmmaking, leveling the playing fields for budding directors who don't have access to Hollywood studio funding.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Regardless of November's problems, Courtney Cox does a fantastic job playing Sophie. She transforms herself into a disheveled wreck, hiding beneath thick-rimmed glasses and straggly, gray-streaked hair. There's a mature restraint in the way Cox handles Sophie's grief. She holds back all her emotions, letting them seethe under the surface until they explode and she breaks down. The script doesn't give her enough to make this a truly revelatory performance, but it's an indication that she has the depth to handle bigger dramatic parts.
The DVD is quite well done, with clean video and 5.1 sound. There are two commentary tracks: one with Greg Harrison and writer Benjamin Brand; and a second one covering the technical end with Harrison and Nancy Schreiber. There's also a discussion between Harrison and composer Lew Baldwin (who also captured some footage) and an alternate opening sequence.
I'm a big fan of psychological thrillers, whether they're of the classic variety or the more modern Lynchian style, so I really wanted to like November. But it's is just such an empty movie, lacking substance and full of obnoxious art-house pretensions. It's only slightly redeemed by Courtney Cox's performance and some cool visual trickery. One good actress and some impressive cinematography, however, do not a good film make.
Guilty, except for Courtney. The court wishes her good luck on finding better roles in the future.
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Scales of Justice
• Technical "Making Of" Commentary with Director and Cinematographer
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