Sunshine State

July, 2004, Drama

Directed by:John Sayles

Starring:Angela Bassett and Edie Falco

Robert Aldrich, (MASH, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Gosford Park) is often referred to as Hollywood's enfant terrible director, but John Sayles' body of work is a far more effective "up yours" to conventional studio output. Starting as a screen writer, Sayles has made a string of independently financed films on his own terms that deliberately appeal, not to box-office potential, but to his own interests; he is to feature films what Fred Wiseman is to the American documentary--and that's saying a great deal.

In films as varied as his bemused reflection on 60's radicals, (The Secaucus Seven) Shoeless Joe Jackson's historic "fix" in major league baseball, (Eight Men Out) Depression-era labor union disputes, (Matewan) offbeat Cajun romance, (Passion Fish ) Irish folk tales, (Roan Inish) a contemporary south-Texas murder mystery with pungent views on Anglo/Mexican racial politics, (Lone Star) and his musings on the class and economic roots of revolutionary violence, (Men With Guns) Sayles writes, produces and directs with an amazing range of content, a remarkable ear, and an artist's eye for conveying his ideas with visual perspectives joined to dialogue so good it's doesn't sound as though it's been written.

In Sunshine State, Sayles ruminates, in leisurely, episodic ensemble fashion on the themes of real estate speculation, the passage of the black generation which gave birth to the leaders of the civil rights movement, small town pomposity, (and it's odd twin, hospitality) failed marriages and the scars they leave--not to mention the longing they don't slake. All of this is served up with some of the wittiest, most thought-provoking dialogue in any American film of the last five years. It's enough to make one believe American movies can still be made for adults.

Comparison to Altman's Gosford Park is apt; in both films, an impressive cast of the director’s favorite actors effortlessly weave multiple plot lines. In Sunshine, they play out over a week in the life of a working class west coast Florida town struggling with possible beach-front development and the implications it will have for those people who call it home.  From a crusty old motel owner lamenting the passage of a Jack London-style America he remembered growing up to a Junior League wanna-be striving mightily to breathe air into a riotously silly civic celebration to a dignified but rigidly conservative black matron in her last years still clinging to the type of behavior she thinks will allow her and her offspring to "move on up", the movie is filled with real, credible characters who make us care about them and how they'll survive the tsunami of events threatening to alter their community forever--always, of course, in the name of progress, which comes in the form of a half dozen developers so gifted in doublespeak one wonders if Sayles ever spent time in the real estate business.

Ralph Waite, Edie Falco, Tim Hutton, Angela Bassett, Jane Alexander, Mary Steenburgen--the entire cast is perfect, and the ending suitably wry and nostalgically melancholy; Sayles understands the world won't stand still and expresses this wonderfully in a colloquy from Waite about the ocean's undertow; it's as evocative as anything we're likely to hear in a movie this year, (and ought to affirm Waite's skills as a superb actor after all those saccharine lines he delivered in The Waltons television series). 

There’s only one false note in this otherwise perfect movie-it comes in the form of  a Yiddish golf foursome featuring Alan King which interrupts the narrative like a Greek chorus to wax philosophical on the themes Sayles' wonderful plot and script make much more subtly and effectively on their own. But this is more quibble than complaint--here's a film, with a large, multi racial cast of superb characters working their way through themes worthy of our attention in language which consistently rings true.

The Verdict? Would it be possible to get 2 or 3 times the output from this remarkable filmmaker?

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