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'In the Bedroom' offers less than meets the eye

Despite critical hype and able performances, this formulaic film that relies on small-screen conventions offers nothing either new or particularly exciting.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 27, 2001

Despite critical hype and able performances, this formulaic film that relies on small-screen conventions offers nothing either new or particularly exciting.

Each movie award season brings one film getting more credit than it deserves, and it's usually British. This year the lucky flick is the American melodrama In the Bedroom, a movie with a lot going for it but not as much as you may expect.

For the record: Sissy Spacek deserves the attention she has received for her performance as a vengeful suburban mother. Perhaps not as much as Tom Wilkinson does for his impeccably controlled portrayal of her husband, but it's deserved nonetheless. Director and co-writer Todd Field is a solid storyteller, although any honors so far accumulated by In the Bedroom seem more like critics grasping for something offbeat to cheer in a dismal movie year.

When you wade through the hype and see the movie, In the Bedroom isn't a big deal. A good movie, to be certain, but not the salvation flick of 2001. It's more like a USA Network movie of the week slowed down to a pace that makes it seem more artful, more important. You watch, you pay attention, you leave, you forget.

Tell me if this doesn't seem like some permutation of a TV movie: Frank, a college-age student (Nick Stahl), is romancing Natalie (Marisa Tomei), an older, divorced mother, with all of the generational questions raised. Natalie's ex-husband Richard (William Mapother) is certifiably psychotic at first glance, so you know there will be trouble. Frank's mother, Ruth (Spacek), is concerned, and his father, Matt (Wilkinson), almost appears envious. They'll do anything to protect their son.

Follow your first impressions of Sleeping with the Enemy and Death Wish, staples of TV-movie conventions, and you can guess the plot of In the Bedroom. Don't be surprised if it's remade for prime-time audiences, probably starring Tim Matheson.

The issues at hand can stir a certain amount of empathy, especially while such dedicated actors are working so hard to convince us that In the Bedroom isn't the same old thing. Spacek gets her best role in years, doting one moment and determined the next. The screenplay gives her some finely worded expressions of anguish to convey, and Spacek's ability to play hurt should never be underestimated.

Wilkinson has the tougher role to play, ambivalent about his son's affair for all reasons male. He doesn't want to interfere but wouldn't mind any details about what seems to be a passionate relationship. When interference becomes the only option, Wilkinson makes Matt a chillingly ordinary vigilante: Charlie Bronson with a patio apron. The boundaries of parenthood shape the second, more satisfying, half of Field's film. Wilkinson and Spacek lend the material more heft than it deserves.

The triangle provoking the parents isn't as compelling. Stahl continues to build a respectable career from small, meaty rolls such as this and Bully. He makes Frank someone easy to support, and that's all that's required. Tomei is a problem, however. She's physically appropriate, a fox weary of being chased too long. But Tomei's affected New England accent is a nuisance when it shows up and a distraction when it doesn't. Mapother merely needs to play a walking wanted poster.

In the Bedroom is worth a look with properly lowered expectations. It's a sturdy piece of fiction, no more or less. Spacek's name will be heard from here to Oscar time, but I'd still prefer Halle Berry's final scene in Monster's Ball to the entirety of this performance. That's the flip side of the awards season: Each movie year also brings a movie or a performance that doesn't get nearly the credit it deserves.

In the Bedroom

Grade: B

Director: Todd Field

Cast: Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson, Nick Stahl, Marisa Tomei, William Mapother

Screenplay: Robert Festinger, Todd Field, Andre Dubus

Rating: R; violence, profanity, sexual situations

Running time: 130 min.

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