Given what it attempts, "Time Out of Mind" should be considered a success. An attempt to use a movie star to shine a dramatic light on the intractable problem of urban homelessness, the film's tone of austerity helps it to avoid sentimentality and simplistic answers. But is it successful enough? That's a different question.
Starring Richard Gere and written and directed by Oren Moverman, "Time Out of Mind" is not an easy film to warm to.
Convincing but not moving, more admirable than satisfying, albeit made with enough integrity and skill to hold an audience's interest, it has unavoidable difficulty creating emotional connection.
Filmmaker Moverman, whose directorial debut was "The Messenger," has had a hand in such noteworthy screenplays as Todd Haynes' "I'm Not There" and "Jesus' Son," adapted from the Denis Johnson book. He takes an observational, neo-art house approach here, resulting in a film whose closest parallel might not be anything dramatic but "On the Bowery," Lionel Rogosin's classic documentary on the corrosive effects of urban alcoholism.
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A film this rigorous would likely never have gotten made without the passion of Gere, described in the press kit biography as "humanitarian, actor and Golden Globe winner." Gere pushed for the project for years and is clearly concerned about the lack of attention society pays to those who have the least, the people we might walk past without a second thought.
Gere plays one such person, George, discovered sleeping in the bathtub of an abandoned New York apartment. Disoriented and disconnected, he needs a shave, a haircut and, most likely, medical attention for the cuts and bruises on his face. If this man hasn't hit bottom, he is only an inch away.
George is forced back on the streets by the individual (played by Steve Buscemi) who finds him in the tub. Because George lives an aimless life, "Time Out of Mind" by definition has an episodic nature as he wanders around the city, panhandling and even selling some of his clothes, all in a ceaseless quest for money to get his next drink.
And because "Time Out of Mind" places George on the streets of the city, engulfed in the mundane world, it had to be shot from a distance. Veteran cinematographer Bobby Bukowski makes expert use of very long lenses to emphasize the reality of the situation.
When he's not drinking or looking for money to buy a drink, George is searching for a place to sleep, which puts him into contact with the city's shelter system and the bureaucracy that runs it. Though these people are depicted as caring, despite everyone's best efforts the system is inevitably a dehumanizing one.
Time on the street has turned George into a loner, someone who feels he is better off by himself. Still, interaction with other people is inevitable, and some of the more involving segments in "Time Out of Mind" involve fellow transients like Kyra Sedgwick's independent-minded homeless woman and motor-mouthed fellow shelter resident Dixon (an effective Ben Vereen).
Of most interest to George is a young woman named Maggie (Jena Malone), a downtown bartender he keeps tabs on from a distance. It soon becomes clear that Maggie is George's fed-up daughter, and his stumbling attempts to reestablish some sort of contact with her give the film as much of an ongoing story line as it is willing to provide.
Though Gere in the starring role is the key selling point, "Time Out of Mind" goes to great lengths to deglamorize him, so much so that the New York Post reported during filming that no one recognized him during shooting on the city's streets.
More than that, Moverman's script makes canny efforts to refer to aspects of the actor that cannot be hidden. "I'm not handsome, maybe I was," George says at one point, adding at another, "Women have always been incredibly kind to me."
Despite his good intentions and his convincing work, Gere playing George turns out to be something of a double-edged sword for "Time Out of Mind." The actor has rarely been someone we easily warm to, and his cool presence is one more thing to overcome for an already overburdened film.