Even Sally Field must have been reaching for the Kleenex after watching this weepie, Judge Katie Herrell says. And Sally was in it.
"What are the moments that define your life?"
I really don't understand why movies like Two Weeks are made. What is the good of painfully witnessing a fictional character's slow, cancer-caused death?
Facts of the Case
Anita Bergman (Sally Field, Norma Rae) is dying from cancer. She has, approximately, two weeks (duh) left of life and calls her children to be at her side. As Anita rapidly deteriorates, the children grapple with the passing of their mother but, mostly, they rib and bicker with one another like pre-teens.
My own mother warned me about this film. Even through the telephone I could see her eyes glaze and her head hang heavy as she noted the importance of stocking up on Kleenex before watching Two Weeks. This wasn't the warning of a film so funny it would make me cry or of one so deep or emotionally wrenching the ensuing cry would leave me somehow renewed. This was the warning of a gratuitously sad movie, and it was a well-deserved warning.
There are four Bergman children, three boys and one girl, and each has issues. Keith (Ben Chaplin) is the California-based Zen master, who seems neither Zen-like nor California-like (maybe because he's hiding a British accent—rather successfully). We learn he is a film-industry person as he records his mother's pre-decline video good-bye. Keith seems the most normal and realistic of the bunch mainly because his oddities are neither stereotypical nor overplayed. From the director commentary in the special features, we learn that Two Weeks is modeled after writer/director Steve Stockman's experience with his own mother's death. Keith is supposed to be the character most resembling Stockman himself.
Barry (Thomas Cavanagh) is the narcissistic workaholic. He orders an Internet connection as soon as he arrives at his mother's North Carolina home and then plans to return to work during the two weeks. He is only foiled by his assistant who apparently channels the "Powers that Be" and "fires" him. I recently watched Gray Matters with Cavanagh and my review of his performance was not glowing. In Two Weeks, Cavanagh proved he still doesn't enliven his characters with any complexity by playing a smooth-faced, glassy-eyed ass. His only redeeming quality in this film is that he is willing to pitch in and change his mother's soiled bed sheets.
Most of my observations regarding sister Emily (Julianne Nicholson) involved trying to figure out what film I last saw her in. I never figured it out (a sign of a good character actor, perhaps?), but I did figure out that her self-help book-reading character in Two Weeks had potential. The puppy dog eyes and mother-daughter bonding further added to her appeal, even if they are stereotypical. But she seemed a second off with her lines. I could almost here her counting in her head, or looking for the tape mark on the floor. But I can't give the poor woman too much flack; her mother was dying. No one's supposed to be too sharp in those circumstances.
Baby brother Matthew (Glenn Howerton) is the youngster of the family who never really grew up. Sure he married a pretentious beauty queen who no one in the family gets along with—the wife, Katrina (Clea DuVall) gets a black mark for not helping with the bed linens—but he rocks a hooded sweatshirt and two-week-old beard like any good college freshman. But then again he does fit the part, visually, of a distraught youngest son facing his first real death in life.
That death was visually and emotionally draining for all involved, including the audience, thanks to the always stellar acting of Sally Field. There's a section in Vanity Fair magazine, I believe, where a famous actor is photographed facially acting a variety of emotions. "Your dog just got run over by a bus, GO. You're twelve and just ate a bunch of cotton candy before boarding the Tilt-A-Whirl, GO." Sally Field should be tapped for this section because she has an immense range of legitimate (not resembling Jim Carrey) facial expressions.
Kudos to the make-up and styling team on this film. Sally Field really looked like she was dying; it was awful. The juxtaposition between a happy, lively Anita in Keith's video and the shriveling, struggling Anita showcased and heightened the terrific physical transformation of Field during this film.
I imagine it must be hard for an actor to see themselves as they might look on their death bed. Of course, I think it must also be extremely depleting—and a little bit soul-sucking—to act out a slow painful death like cancer. In fact, it feels a little wrong to criticize a movie about death—especially a death not self-inflicted or caused by accident or stupidity. But then, I'm brought back to the question of why this movie, or any similar movie, exists. It's certainly not so the actors can reflect on their future demise.
My mother, who really didn't hate the movie as much as I initially thought (or perhaps she also felt guilty about hating a movie about death), claimed these movies make people appreciate what they have. Or they make people appreciate caretakers—those who are secluded away caring for the needs of a dying loved one. And this is an excellent perspective, I admit. Plus, the hospice worker in this film, Carol (Michael Hyatt), was realistically played as an unobtrusive yet sympathetic and competent character. She was one of the strongest actors in the film despite her limited screen time. However, someone should make a documentary about hospice workers (or maybe someone has) rather than another fictional account of their role in a dying person's life.
Another character with great potential in the film is Anita's second husband, Jim (James Murtaugh). Unfortunately, Jim is relegated to 20-second intervals in the film, likely the result of extensive editing (although the deleted scenes in the special features portion don't give credence to this theory). Jim's power scene, where he lambastes one of the boys for barging in and overtaking his dying wife, is poignant and apt, yet on a whole his character is underdeveloped. The entire first half of the film I kept wondering who the scraggy man in flannel was.
I was left wondering a lot with this movie, but not necessarily about the life lessons and experiences the writer/director was trying to impart. I did learn one thing from Two Weeks, though. I'm glad I only have one sibling because it seems that when there are more the chaos of life and death is overly magnified, and not in a good way. So that's something.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I must compliment the soundtrack of the film. The opening Guster song is not one I've ever heard in a film. Although the middle of the movie hit a musical lull (despite the original soundtrack by an accomplished guitarist), the end picked up with a moody piece by Snow Patrol and what sounded like David Gray. It was an interesting mix of tunes I would have expected from a more avant-garde film. Also, I was impressed by the director's willingness to address the harsh physical realities of cancer. He wasn't afraid to have his portrayals critiqued by Dr. Ira Byock, an expert on dying. In the special features, Dr. Byock notes that one scene, where brother and sister give their mother repeated hits of morphine, was incorrect in that morphine dispensers do not allow that many simultaneous doses. Stockman admitted he took poetic license with that scene, and several others, to convey a wider range of his characters' personalities and emotions. I was impressed both that Stockman invited Byock to assess the film and that he handled his critiques honestly and unabrasively.
Perhaps, later in life (hopefully much later), I will reflect on Two Weeks and think "Wow, that movie was spot on." But if I arrive at that point, will the movie's correctness justify its existence? Just because a movie speaks to real life, does it have to be a part of my real life? Certainly, a movie doesn't have to serve a higher purpose to be a good, enjoyable, or worthwhile film. But for me, if I'm going to be left red-faced and runny-eyed after a movie, I want to have gained something, dammit.
I hope that the moments that define my life will be nothing like what I saw in this film.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with director Steve Stockman and Dr. Ira Byock
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