The Truth Is Still Putting Its Shoes On
2008 // Canada // Atom Egoyan //June 21, 2009 // Theatrical Print
C- - Up to the halfway point in Atom Egoyan's latest elliptical drama, Adoration, I felt pangs of frustration even as the director's invigorating style held my attention. Adoration boasts the Egoyan fingerprints in spades, particularly his gloriously stark aesthetic and his penchant for teasing a haunting mood from the most banal landscapes and conversations. What frustrates is the absence of the profound sadness and confusion that are manifestly the objectives in Adoration, and which characterize much of Egoyan's work. Few things are as disheartening as watching a talented artist miss his mark, and the conceptual and emotional misfires in this film induce regretful wincing. Such stumbles are small potatoes, however, compared to the narrative inanity that starts to pile up in Adoration's second half. It's never a good sign when the main characters start behaving like mental patients in what is ostensibly a melancholy drama about deceit, bigotry, and birthrights.
Like most of Egoyan's films, Adoration has a bit of a shuffled narrative, although here the formula is also sprinkled with fantasy sequences and dreams of past events. Compared to the looping, finely minced structure of, say, The Girlfriend Experience, however, Adoration is relatively straightforward, the overall thrust of the plot preserved to lend the film something resembling a dramatic arc. As a French language exercise, Canadian high school student Simon (the lanky, engaging Devon Bostick) and his classmates are instructed to translate a magazine article about the Israeli security forces foiling a terrorist plot. For personal reasons that even he doesn't quite comprehend, Simon latches onto this story about a Muslim terrorist who tricked his pregnant fiancé into carrying a bomb onto a plane. It turns out that Simon's father (Noam Jenkins) was a Canadian Arab and violin-maker who swept Simon's white, classical violinist mother (Rachel Blanchard) off her feet. Both died in an auto accident when Simon was a young child, leaving the boy to be raised by his mother's brother, Tom (Scott Speedman) a working class guy with a belly full of familial and cultural resentments and an anger management problem.
Owing to lingering questions about his parents' deaths--Did his father drive into the oncoming car deliberately?--Simon internalizes his French assignment and recasts it as a story about his parents. His teacher, Sabine (Arsinée Khanjian), bizarrely encourages this for reasons that only become apparent later (and even then, not so much). Before you can say "urban legend," Simon's essay has cropped up online and reopened wounds about the real bomb plot, not to mention provoking a flurry of debates about racism, moral relativism, and political and religious violence. Simon's attitude towards these firestorms is contradictory, alternately provocative and alarmed, but he seems to recognize their cathartic potential. The controversy serves as a starting point for him to tackle his uncle's disengagement with the world, confront the bigoted legacy of his recently deceased grandfather (Kenneth Welsh), and untangle the real story of his parents' love.
Characteristically, Egoyan addresses these emotional and social aspects of his tale with supreme delicacy. His characters feel things, but they don't like to discuss them, except on the Internet, where all bets are off. The online dimension to the film's story, however, is also its most conceptually and emotionally problematic. Egoyan seems convinced that extended sequences of teenagers videoconferencing to indulge in meandering philosophical and ethical discussions makes for riveting film-making. He runs afoul of a bedrock rule of contemporary film: the Internet, when presented with realism, is not cinematic. That's not to say that the right director couldn't make a videoconference compelling in the right context. (Hitchcock could have made a thrilling one, I'm sure, and Lynch can probably make one terrifying.) In general, however, watching scenes of people talk about Serious Issues on the Internet is just a notch above watching scenes of people filling out tax returns, no matter how gorgeously lit those scenes might be. It doesn't help that such scenes are mostly lifeless in Adoration. (In one exception, a blustering Maury Chafkin declares that even if a mass murder is prevented, the intended victims are still "dead." Huh?)
Further upsetting Egoyan's ambition is his frail embrace of far too many thematic parcels.Adoration certainly seems to be about a lot of things: race, religion, extremism, nihilism, family, memory, truth. Unfortunately, it doesn't actually do much with any of those things, nor does it have much of interest to say about them. This enervates the whole enterprise, draining it of the pathos it so desperately wants to evoke. The film even fumbles Egoyan's most essential building block, the lost and despairing soul, failing to find much empathy for any of its characters. The director's personal masterpiece, The Sweet Hereafter, offers an instructive contrast. In that film, Egoyan took one ugly truth--that tragedy can fatally poison the bystanders--and explored it through a multitude of permutations. Adoration's concerns are so thinly sketched and so wide-ranging that the film never quite condenses into a satisfying exploration of much of anything. The gorgeous violin score by Mychael Danna suggests that grave and weighty matters are afoot, but the film takes only a cursory interest in them, like an idle window shopper.
This might have rendered the film merely unsatisfying, but Adoration goes completely off the rails by the time its second act starts to play out. When Egoyan pulls back the curtain and explains, in fits and starts, what is actually going on, he recasts scenes that previously seemed mysterious and expectant as pointlessly peculiar. The plot ultimately relies on characters acting so childish, obsessive, and clumsily deceitful that whatever gravitas the film had is shattered. Sudden reversals are all well in good, but they should never invoke incredulous guffaws from the audience, which Adoration managed on several occasions. What's more, the film's increasingly ridiculous turns occur around the same time that Egoyan indulges in some truly absurd dialogue, most conspicuously a conversation about a baloney sandwich that escalates into a fist fight. That sentence should be a screaming red warning flag that Adoration gets very, very silly by its end, to the point of wearing out its welcome. Coming from Egoyan, that's a disappointing destination.