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White Oleander
2002 - PG-13 - 109 Mins.
Director: Peter Kosminsky
Producer: Hunt Lowry, John Wells
Written By: Mary Agnes Donogue, Janet Fitch (novel)
Starring: Alison Lohman, Michelle Pfeiffer, Renee Zellweger, Robin Wright Penn
Review by: Marc Eastman
Curiously enough, someone recently contacted me to ask what I mean by ‘sap’. Not to be dismissed easily, they clarified that I used the term frequently, but did not apply it to movies which seemed (to this person at least) worthy of the moniker. When, I deduced as the question, do things go too far, and thus it becomes sap? This is curious mainly in that I didn’t realize I used the term all that often, but also because I rather thought the idea was common knowledge. By way of answer, I asked this person if they knew what oranges look like.

You may be surprised to learn that some clarification was requested.

Ours is quickly becoming a world in which very few people actually know what an orange looks like. Those things you buy in the supermarket actually are oranges, but they don’t look like them. As I’ll assume you know, oranges aren’t really that orange. Perhaps more strange, there is no real reason to want your oranges that orange. Ripeness, taste, and general yumminess in oranges are not dictated by color, and yellow and even practically green oranges are just as good. Those things at the supermarket have been sprayed red to add to their yellow hue making orange, or have been gassed with a chlorophyll-killing agent. Or both. Oranges, you see, for no actual reason, won’t sell unless they are quite orange indeed.

If we can follow my metaphor here, and catch its meaning, ‘White Oleander’ is not simply a painted orange, it glows and has little neon signs that say ‘ORANGE’ all over it. And bells.

‘White Oleander’ is based on a book I haven’t read. I have it, however, on the highest authority that it is an “about average piece of chick-lit trash which, while having no real redeeming qualities, is a decent read”. That’s perhaps not as bad as it seems, because that translates into her having liked it to at least some degree. That same authority lost all its whimsy when describing the movie, and rightly so.

‘White Oleander’ is the story of Astrid (Alison Lohman) and her mother Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer). While Astrid is in her early teens, mother Ingrid kills her boyfriend (her own, not Astrid’s). Uselessly insane Ingrid (let’s face it, some people are insane in interesting ways, some aren’t) goes to jail, and Astrid bounces around from one foster home to another. During these formative years, Ingrid attempts to control her daughter from prison. And, during one of the many ‘between foster parent’ stints Astrid spends apparently in the county lock-up, she meets a boy.

There is certainly a sense in which more happens than just that, but it isn’t a very real sense.

The book may be about Astrid, but the movie is about Ingrid. Our only chance to come remotely close to anyone is during the occasional visits to prison, and more importantly whenever anything has to do with Ingrid. Astrid may be who you see the most, but she’s just being dragged along for the ride, and you couldn’t possibly care less about her. She zips about on fast-forward, darting into one ‘family’ and then the next. We never establish any of the side characters, and can barely take enough interest to notice when we’ve moved on to a different family.

Alison Lohman is an unforgivably bad actress. She can’t even make me believe she’s been shot, and I just saw it happen. Acting is a wonderfully complex and difficult task, but listen, acting like you’ve been shot goes on across the country on a daily basis, and better. Seriously, for a moment I thought the gag was going to be that she was missed, but was only scared for a moment that she had been hit. If anyone thinks she’s going to manage the alleged deep and meaningful emotions she’s supposed to be having, they’re probably going to have to attach electrodes to her.

Michelle Pfeiffer isn’t bad really, but who cares? Her uber-elitist, artist, know-it-all character never was interesting, and we’ve seen it to death. Oh, the psychological manipulation of everyone around her. Ah, the ridiculous getting someone to kill themselves just by talking to them. Should I go for a refill on the popcorn?

Not since ‘Dune’ (and David Lynch told us flat out not to bother seeing the film unless we’d read the book) has there been a movie that so utterly demanded its audience know the story beforehand. This is a movie that it is ultimately unfair to even call a movie. It is a sort of reminiscence for those who’ve read the book, and can paste their ideas about the characters onto the cardboard cut-outs dancing about before them as they watch. Those who are among the initiated can perhaps gain some meaning from the episodes that flash by as After-school special caliber babble, but if they can it’s only because they have some recollection of (hopefully) superior passages of the book. Even I, witness to this horrible film and jaded because of the fact, can admit that surely there is more to the ‘story’ than simply the idea that the foster-care system has some serious kinks to work out, and that it sucks to have a raving lunatic for a mother, but whatever that ‘more’ is, look for it in the book. I’m not sure you’ll find it there, but you definitely won’t find it in the movie.

The story goes that there is some exceptional insight about the relationship between mothers and daughters to be found here. I say that’s the story, because I’ve heard so many women say it. I feel the need to interject here that there may also be some odd tidbit of insight into the difference between men and women to be found. There are movies (go ahead and think of your own) in which the featured characters are a son, and his completely insane father. At the end of none of those movies did men walk out of the theater saying, ‘tells ya a lot about the relationship between fathers and sons, don’t it?’

If you’re a fan of the book (good luck to you), there’s probably a good time waiting for you here. If you’re not, no movie in recent years has come closer to being perfect MST3K fodder.

By this point, you may wonder at my introduction (and you might not be alone frankly). The difference between something good and ‘sap’ is that there are real things in life we call oranges. Uncertain of your ability to appreciate a good orange when you see it, however, sappy things come along and bombard you with so much orangeness that by the time its over you wonder if there was any actual orange there at all.

‘White Oleander’ is not a movie with emotion, it is a movie that bombards you with shiny devices at emotion. It is a movie that does not merely kick dogs just for the sake of kicking dogs, it throws dogs into the paths of harmless passersby. It is a movie with characters so contrived, so hackneyed, and so shallow, our only surprise is that the one does not wear an “I Beat My Children” T-shirt, another does not walk about with a razor blade always close at hand, and yet another is credited as something other than ‘Man ‘Bout To Get Him Some Young Girl’.

There is a story to be told that takes us on a journey through a young girl’s formative days in such circumstances. Trying to figure out who she is while bouncing through several world-views, all the while being reminded of her mother, their bond, and her controlling ways. Trying to make sense of a life filled with little joy, and little of anything at all. Holding firmly to her art as about the only thing she knows about herself, unable to find any solid ground on which to grow, unable to break free of her mother.

This, however, is not that movie. Nor even is the book that book.
Movie Guru Rating
Unwatchable.  One of the worst of the year.  Skip it.
  0.5 out of 5 stars

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