Friday November 12, 1999
It borders on the unforgivably glib to say "Anywhere but Here" is where you want to be while the Wayne Wang-directed version of Mona Simpson's novel is on the screen, but it's also close to the truth. While adapting accomplished fiction such as this is a lure Hollywood can never resist, some characters breathe better on the page, and that is the case here.
While it's a given that Simpson's subtly written, 500-plus-page novel about a complex and painful mother-daughter relationship can't be transferred to the screen in toto, it's unfortunate that what we are given is so standardized and generic. And while Natalie Portman's work as 14-year-old daughter Ann is keenly empathetic, Susan Sarandon and her character do not make a good fit.
Sarandon's Adele August is the latest in what seems to be an interminable line of live-for-the-moment, force-of-nature screen mothers who are so involved grabbing all the gusto and throwing themselves into life that they don't notice all the chaos they are causing for the people they nominally care the most about.
So it is with Adele, first glimpsed chomping unself-consciously on junk food and humming along with the Beach Boys as she drives an understandably sullen Ann from their home in Bay City, Wis., to what she firmly believes, based on very little hard evidence, is going to be a much better life in glamorous Beverly Hills. Scattered, selfish and self-absorbed, Adele is the kind of person who is so busy "trying to taste the entire world" that she can't remember to pay the electric bill. Bored by reality and intoxicated by her own fantasies, she is so full of pert and chipper energy and bogus happy-face homilies ("Be optimistic: smile, smile, smile!") you want to hide under the seat.
It's not just that a more irritating character is difficult to imagine, it's that Adele is so one-dimensional, so completely a movie construct, that any situation she's involved in automatically becomes bogus and unbearable. When daughter Ann snaps, "I hate you," or when a Los Angeles cop bawls Adele out, we want to rise in our seats and cheer.
Not surprisingly, Adele felt that small-town Bay City and second husband and ice-skating teacher Ted (Ray Baker) were just too limiting for her sublime designs. She tells everyone she's doing it for Ann, for her daughter's desire to be a child star, but in fact Ann is torn up to be leaving behind her cousin and best friend Benny (Shawn Hatosy), her aunt Carol (an underutilized Bonnie Bedelia) and her grandmother Lillian (Eileen Ryan).
In Los Angeles, Adele does find employment as a school speech pathologist, and she and Ann move into a series of barely furnished apartments that enable Ann to attend Beverly Hills High, an institution and a locale that suit Adele's fantasy life.
While Adele hunts for a suitably wealthy boyfriend (Hart Bochner's hunky orthodontist is a candidate for a while), Ann focuses most of her energy on just trying to survive her mother and cope with the absence of her Egyptian-born father, now relocated to Las Vegas. (A phone conversation between father and daughter turns out to be the film's most emotionally affecting sequence.)
Brief moments notwithstanding, very little of interest happens in "Anywhere but Here," hampered as it is by a syrupy soft rock score and too dispirited overall to be anything more than a wannabe sentimental wallow. Both director Wang ("The Joy Luck Club") and screenwriter Alvin Sargent (an Oscar winner for "Ordinary People" and "Julia") have had better luck with other family situations.
Though Ann has to like Adele at least a little bit--she's her mother, after all--audiences are under no such compunction. "Even if you hate her," the daughter says about Adele at one point, "can't stand her, even if she's ruining your life, there's something about her, some romance, some power." Ann truly believes this, but nothing on the screen backs it up.
Anywhere but Here, 1999. PG-13, for sex-related material. Fox 2000 presents a Laurence Mark production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Wayne Wang. Producer Laurence Mark. Executive producer Ginny Nugent. Screenplay Alvin Sargent, based on the novel by Mona Simpson. Cinematographer Roger Deakins. Editor Nicholas C. Smith. Costumes Betsy Heimann. Music Danny Elfman. Production design Donald Graham Burt. Art director Kevin Constant. Set decorator Barbara Munch. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes. Susan Sarandon as Adele August. Natalie Portman as Ann August. Eileen Ryan as Lillian. Ray Baker as Ted. John Diehl as Jimmy.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times