Judge Christopher Kulik loves to listen to songs in QuickTime.
Is she opening her heart to love or harboring a criminal?
If there is one thing made-for-TV movies constantly thrive on it's the best-selling book which isn't deemed commercial enough for major studios. One such example is Mary McGarry Morris' 1995 novel which became an Oprah Book Club selection. Sure, it's not exactly the Pulitzer Prize, but it gave Songs In Ordinary Time enough clout to be adapted to the small screen. Now available on DVD courtesy of Sony, is the film watchable?
In 1959 Vermont, a mother is struggling to raise three children after her divorce. Marie Fermoyle (Sissy Spacek, Coal Miner's Daughter) has her hands full, particularly when her ex-husband Sam (Keir Dullea, 2001: A Space Odyssey) has gone cuckoo and 17-year-old daughter Alice (Careena Melia, Moonlight Mile) is ready to go to college, but needs the appropriate funds. Faith and hope may be calling in Omar Duvall (Beau Bridges, Max Payne), a drifter who is really a slick con man on the run after murdering his business associate. Omar and Marie get romantically involved, and soon he begins another game which pushes the vulnerable Marie to extreme measures.
With Songs In Ordinary Time, I was expecting something all-too-familiar, the kind of maudlin material which only belongs in TV movies. Surprisingly enough, however, I got swept up into these people's lives. I'm sure changes were made from the novel by writer Malcolm MacRury (who also wrote Mel Gibson's exceptional drama The Man Without A Face), but the narrative moves at a brisk pace and many of the plot dynamics work. The relationship between Omar and Faith is fully realized as their flaws and desires come together, never entering artificiality.
It also helps when two top-notch actors take control of the piece. Spacek has always been one of my favorite actresses and once again she garners our sympathy with a strong performance. Beau Bridges is also terrific, selling this character so much we almost feel sorry for him. If anything, we surely identify with Marie's feelings, as we too buy into Omar's corrupt charm and mind games. As for Dullea, while it's great to see him again, his character remains an enigma, and the fine actor is given only a few scenes to really emerge. However, the actors who play Marie's children (including Melia), are all outstanding.
Unfortunately, Songs In Ordinary Time suffers when it gets more complicated than it needs to be. The story's solidity is compromised by several things. One is the unnecessary subplot in which Alice gets sexually involved with a local preacher. There is no payoff and her backseat motivations are rather muddy. Plot threads are left dangling at the end which is quite annoying, especially when other revelations are predictable. Some of the emotional connections (like between Marie and Benjy, her youngest son) definitely work, but it seems like the compressed running time—standard, but inexcusable—prevents the third act to fully consummate itself.
I have a couple of other small quibbles. What exactly did the title mean? It sounds spiritual in nature, however the film's religious elements are tenuous at best, with no visible metaphors to speak of. The only songs on the soundtrack are oldies, which bring a gripe I have about the period detail. I know this is a TV movie and the budget was no doubt very small, but how do you justify a movie theatre playing West Side Story, which came out in 1961, a full two years after this story takes place? Oooopps!
Sony's digital treatment is respectable but won't rock your boat. Clean anamorphic picture, fine stereo tracks in English and French (with subtitles included in both languages), and no extras.
Songs In Ordinary Time can't seem to completely overcome ordinariness, but it remains a cut above the usual movie-of-the-week. Recommended if you like the book or the cast, but don't expect too many dramatic fireworks.
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