Poor “Things”

I feel your judgmentLet’s consider “Things We Lost in the Fire” this way: You’re a studio head, and you want to buy yourself some awards.

You start out with talent that’s got built-in respectability. In this case, that’s producer Sam Mendes, whose “American Beauty” gave distributor DreamWorks its first Oscar for Best Picture, and stars Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro, honored for their performances in “Monster’s Ball” and “Traffic”, respectively.

And then you hand-pick a rising star to direct — in this case, Susanne Bier, whose “After the Wedding” was up for last year’s Best Foreign-Language Feature.

And then, certain that you’ve got a winning formula, you pat everyone on the head and let them go off and make their movie, instead of supervising them to make sure they’re all working towards the same goal.

Because, from the evidence on the screen, no one was communicating anything to anyone else at any point in this shoot.

This kind of pre-fabricated prestige picture was perfected by Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax Films about a decade ago, when they capitalized on the success of “The English Patient” by producing “Shakespeare in Love”, a romantic costume comedy featuring an all-star cast performing vaguely highbrow subject matter in a loose and accessible manner: Don’t worry about the accents; Gwynnie’s playing a dude!

Once “Shakespeare” took Best Picture, Harvey dedicated himself to making one of these movies every year, usually tapping Lasse Hallstrom to direct. This strategy produced “The Cider House Rules”, “Chocolat”, “The Shipping News” and “Casanova” — the latter picked up by Disney as the Weinsteins abandoned Miramax to set up their own imprint. Each one managed to address serious issues while pandering to the audience (and the Academy) by front-loading the picture with Oscar-winning actors and “relevant” storylines.

Well, except for “Casanova”, which tries to be a frothy comedy in the vein of “Shakespeare in Love” while paying lip service to feminism and the Enlightenment. In a movie about Casanova. Right.

Anyway. Someone at DreamWorks is clearly trying to follow the Weinstein formula, but the calculations are off; the movies aren’t accessible to anyone. “Road to Perdition” bore its stately production design like an impenetrable shield; “House of Sand and Fog” was an artfully lit mess of misery porn. And “Things We Lost in the Fire” is a movie made by Martians.

I am not sure how Susanne Bier convinced Tom Stern to shoot the film entirely in extreme close-up — seriously, like 80% of the picture is eyes and foreheads — but the decision kills the film stone dead. The script is already austere and elliptical in that Art Movie way, but staging the whole movie as a portable sensory deprivation chamber sucks the last molecules of oxygen out of the frame. Trapped with the emptiness of the dialogue and the sparseness of the characterization, we’re snickering at the characters long before the big eyebrow-stroking scene.

The strategy is made all the weirder since Stern has shot Clint Eastwood’s last five pictures, and has demonstrated himself to be a deft and adaptive DP; “Million Dollar Baby” has an excellent sense of visual intimacy, and “Flags of Our Fathers” is nothing but wide shots. Clearly, he’s giving Bier precisely what she wants, and it destroys any chance the movie has at connecting with an audience.

Did no one at DreamWorks check in on the production? Did no one sit in on the dailies? Did Mendes use his considerable standing with the studio to protect his pet director? Did Bier go mad with power upon landing her first Hollywood contract? And, um, didn’t the actors have anything to say about the way they were being lit and shot? Surely Halle Berry has people for this sort of thing.

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and declare that “Things We Lost in the Fire” has absolutely no chance at scoring any Oscar nominations, unless the Academy is feeling particularly perverse and puts it up for Best Cinematography. Sadly, this will change nothing about DreamWorks’ prestige-picture strategy; someone will surely argue that the movie was just released at the wrong time, or mismarketed, or whatever. And after the failure of “Dreamgirls” to set the Oscars on fire, self-important melodrama must feel like a safe zone; it’s way cheaper to produce, and the poster art is far less complicated.

I’m still convinced that DreamWorks will eventually pick up Vadim Perelman’s horrendous “In Bloom”, because it covers the Big Serious Issue of school shootings in an unbearably pretentious fashion, and therefore must be Great Art.

Kill me now.