Moving to some, bland to others, James C. Strouse‘s “Grace is Gone” follows the emotional journey of Stanley Phillips (John Cusack) after discovering his wife has been killed in Iraq, leaving him alone with their two daughters. Unable to bring himself to deliver the news, Phillips takes his girls on a road trip from their drab middle-class American town to an amusement park in Florida called “Enchanted Gardens.” If the plotline sounds vaguely similar to “Little Miss Sunshine,” any parallels are merely superficial. Not nearly as funny or sad as it needs to be, “Grace is Gone” represents the well-intentioned efforts of a novice filmmaker still finding his way.
Wearing large square glasses, baggy pleated pants, with a sagging, dejected demeanor, Cusack’s Stanley is a mild-mannered conservative who comes across like a stereotype of a mild-mannered conservative. His patriotic sincerity is over-the-top; his lack of introspection is infantile. One wonders how the film might have played with an actor who could have slipped more anonymously into the role. As it is, Cusack is acting with a capital A. But it doesn’t help that the screenplay is full of right-wing cliches.
Nowhere are the red-state/blue-state stereotypes more clear when Stanley visits his left-wing brother John (Alessandro Nivola) on the way to Enchanted Gardens. Both characters espouse views (“your monkey president” vs. “their mother is a hero”) that sound like they were spoken by dueling talk-radio hosts instead of siblings.
Cusack’s performance improves as the film progresses, aided by his stellar young co-stars, Shelan O’Keefe as 12-year-old good-girl Heidi and Grace Bednarczyk as the bubbly and cute Dawn. (O’Keefe is the best thing about the movie, whose natural and levelheaded manner gives much-needed authenticity.) As Cusack sloughs off the awkward exterior quirks and begins to relate to his daughters and the meaning of his wife’s death, however, the film reaches a few moments of delicate poignancy, particularly a heart-tugging sequence set in a Wal-Mart.
Clearly, Strouse aims to eventually break down the red-blue divide and show the human cost of war and its effect on Americans, no matter what their political affiliation. But despite its good intentions and predictable pathos-filled climax (which, if you’re so inclined, will leave you in tears), the movie lacks multi-dimensionality, both in its characterizations, but also in the fictional world created by the filmmakers. With cinematography that is uninspired and flatly captured in Hi-Def DV, and a production design that often feels one color or prop away from reality, the film’s emotional truth is further undetermined.
But such lackluster technical credits may not keep audiences away from this middlebrow melodrama, with its opportunity to purge their pain about the war. At least that’s what The Weinstein Company must have been thinking when they paid up $4 million for the film in the wee hours of the morning. But the hype around the movie is undeserved, and if Harvey can turn Cusack’s performance into a legitimate awards contender than the mogul truly is a marketing magician.
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