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By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 7, 2002


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[Photo: Lions Gate Films]
Lantana (R) (121 min.) -- Australian Ray Lawrence is the latest filmmaker to proclaim professional admiration for Robert Altman, incorporating the master's signature -- or an expert counterfeiter like Paul Thomas Anderson's -- into Lantana. This brooding multiple character study operates on the sturdy cinematic principle that everyone is connected to someone else, even strangers, in ways that can shape or shatter lives.

The hub of this intimate spinning wheel is Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia), a powder-keg cop introduced while he's cheating on his wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong). Leon is a tragedy waiting to happen, sabotaging his life with bad judgment unless those chest pains end it first. Sonja is steady but suspicious, which leads her to therapist Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey) for advice.

Valerie's emotional baggage arrives slowly as Lawrence and screenwriter Andrew Bovell (the movie is based on his stage play Speaking in Tongues) deftly drop clues for the audience. Valerie's daughter was murdered a few years before, and she wrote a book about the situation, a career-turner that still doesn't sit well with her husband, John Knox (Geoffrey Rush). Another of Valerie's clients is a gay man (Peter Phelps) with a married lover the psychiatrist believes is John. Everyone in Lantana doesn't know something important about someone else.

Contrasting the Zats' middle-class woes and the affluent tragedy of Valerie and John is a financially struggling, emotionally secure couple (Vince Colosimo, Rachael Blake) who mingle with the others in Bovell's random coincidences. Class is a constant issue in Lantana, with an underlying message that money can't buy happiness.

Lantana is named for a dense, prickly plant, an apt metaphor for the emotional tangles involved. The film begins with Mandy Walker's camera pushing through a field of lantana until it spies a corpse, like the severed ear kicking off Blue Velvet. We can't identify the body but, even if the victim is guessed, the killer and his or her motivation won't be pegged for a while.

Lawrence's film is a whodunit, thought it's more adept at wondering why these people are doing this to themselves. LaPaglia (an Aussie despite his usual New York accents) has the most volatile character, unleashing Leon's personal and professional frustrations in a wide arc, from viciously bullying a jogger who bumped him to an embarrassed reluctance to join Sonja in a dance class. It's a bold performance that earned one of the film's eight Australian Film Institute awards.

Each actor has combustible material to burn. Hershey (The Stunt Man, The Portrait of a Lady) makes one of her infrequent, always impressive appearances. Her scenes with Rush contain a raw honesty beneath their characters' respectable poses. Armstrong is a quieter force, poising Sonja on the brink of a new life or the same old thing. Even the smallest roles carry telling moments as Lantana rambles toward solving a case that gradually becomes less important.

The screenplay and Lawrence's somber style wallow in more angst than necessary, but with actors working at this level, it's a minor problem. As in Monster's Ball, the erotic passages are more pathetic than titillating because of the desperation under the skin. Lantana is an ambitious dive into emotional depths that fascinates while it also repulses, a lovely ugliness haunting a viewer for days afterward. A-

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