PARK CITY 2002 REVIEW: "Laramie Project" Stumbles on Way to Screen
by Andy Bailey
(indieWIRE/01.12.02) -- Appearing on stage in Salt Lake City before the opening night screening of Moises Kaufman's film adaptation of "The Laramie Project," the 2001 play about a theater troupe trying to find deeper meaning in the beating death of Matthew Shepard, Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford spoke about the 20-year-old festival's aim to support independent artists and projects that would reflect life, promote thought and foster understanding. "The Laramie Project" fulfills that promise. Kaufman developed the play at the festival's theater lab before its debut in Denver and New York, then returned last year to the the screenwriting lab to develop it into a film. The film also fits nicely into the post-9/11 soul-searching sensibility that's so popular right now, described by Redford as a new kind of sensitivity, a new consciousness even.
But in its trickle-down journey to the small screen (HBO will broadcast it on cable this Spring), the film version of "The Laramie Project" comes across as something of a failed experiment in its effort to bear witness to a national tragedy. While its intentions should be applauded, and while its prestigious opening slot in the festival is an encouraging sign for uncategorizable, socially redeeming fare such as this, the film remains an unusual hybrid that doesn't always succeed. It's not quite a documentary; it's certainly no longer theater and although it substitutes film and television actors for the roles of the 22 Laramie residents interviewed by Kaufman's Tectonic Theater Troupe, it's not a feature film in the traditional sense. Another gays-in-the-heartland biopic would have been cheap at this point, occupying the same emotionally grim terrain as "Boys Don't Cry."
Kaufman's ensemble cast for the film includes a who's-who of familiar indie faces, including Steve Buscemi, Christina Ricci, Laura Linney, Terry Kinney, Dylan Baker, Jeremy Davies, Clea Duvall and other luminaries such as Amy Madigan, Frances Sternhagen, Janeane Garofolo and Camryn Manheim. They inhabit the roles of a group of Laramie locals who are initially reluctant to welcome the predominantly gay theater troupe that comes to town to gather material, but who ultimately open their hearts, minds and homes to the young soul searchers as they try to find catharsis and closure in the wake of Shepard's tragic murder.
A few locals, including Laura Linney as a narrow-minded bigot, remain steadfast in their refusal to embrace Shepard as a martyr and a saint. "I don't think he was," Linney's character snaps, exuding the barbed sarcasm we've come to expect from Linney -- which makes us see the character more as Laura Linney than some lunkheaded local. Likewise, Steve Buscemi plays a kooky mechanic who's so quintessentially Steve Buscemi in his kookiness that something gets lost in the translation. It's hard for the Laramie denizens, who are the heart and soul of the project both on stage and screen, to come through, with the stars looming large over glorified cameo appearances.
And with such an unwieldy cast, Kaufman's message of healing and pathos becomes perverted, lending "The Laramie Project" the veneer of a We Are The World-type love-fest. It's easy to see how the original material made for gripping theater, as the Tectonic players read testimonials from the stage and recreated the roles of the locals themselves, creating catharsis out of something organic and arriving at a deeper truth as a group.
The film feels like a giant group hug, replete with a cloyingly inspirational score that never seems to go away. At one point a troupe member interviews a lonely 52-year-old gay Laramie resident, who recalls watching a small parade wind through town in the days after the beating, honoring Shepard as he clung to life in the local emergency room. (Cue up emotionally charged score): "Can you imagine," the gay man says to his rapt interrogator, as more Laramie residents join the parade in a cinematic dissolve that has the same manipulative effect as the closing scene of "Schindler's List." "The tag of people at the end was bigger than the entire parade," the gay Laramian continues. "My first thought was Thank God I got to see this in my lifetime. My second thought was, Thank you Matthew." Watching the play we would have been spared the cinematic image of Christina Ricci marching in a parade, as loads of Laramie locals join the love train, but actually seeing it forces you to reconsider Kaufman's mission.
Toward the end, the film slips into rote courtroom drama as Terry Kinney, playing Matthew Shepard's father, reads that famous emotionally charged letter to convicted murder Aaron MacKinney, sparing him the death penalty, yet reminding him of the callousness of his actions. Again, it's another gut-wrenching piece of acting, but the catharsis we've so badly waited for never arrives -- probably because we've already seen the real thing on NBC Nightly News. Here the film veers dangerously close to the terrain of made-for-television drama -- which it is, in a sense. But you want to give Kaufman credit for not taking the easy route (fictionalizing the material full-throttle) or creating a straightforward documentary (which would have neutered "The Laramie Project" of its force).
There's such a thing as overdevelopment, and "The Laramie Project" comes across as one of those projects that's gone too far through the Sundance system, had too many hands in its evolution from street to stage to screen. The art-versus-commerce struggle between Kaufman and HBO seems all too obvious, though you have to give the cable channel kudos for its ongoing mission to broadcast unconventional, daring programming. There's certainly room for unconventional meta-documentaries; square peg hybrids like "The Thin Blue Line," "Hybrid" and "Wisconsin Death Trip" have taken the documentary form to bold new levels. But "The Laramie Project" is too unsure of itself as a film, and too reliant upon actors to deliver the necessary emotional punches required of such an innovative, ambitious project.