Mommies' Little Girl
Barcelona has long been Spain’s most open, international and culturally advanced metropolis. Following Almodóvar and his imitators, the city has more recently grown into a preferred cinema location, especially its Barrio Gótico, or Old Quarter, as Paris, Rome and New York have been in their time. No matter that the kind, kooky and colorful celluloid Ciudad Condal (City of the Count) has little to do with reality, for such is generally true of the others, as well. What may be worrisome, however, is the irresistible tendency to falsify life by exaggerating a kindhearted, all-turns-out-well-in-the-end vision of life in the Mediterranean port.
Unfortunately, the sometimes dependable self-declared feminist Susan Seidelman falls into that trap in Gaudi Afternoon, a waste of talent – even Lili Taylor is flat – scripted from a 1990 Barbara Wilson mystery novel. While hometown Josep M. Civet’s cinematography at least takes an unusual glance at intriguing Gaudí whirls and swirls, the tour footage is cursory and not a reinforcement of the director’s claim that such "architecture fully represents the storyline . . . [in that what] you initially see becomes something totally different."
The film centers on Cassandra Reilly (Judy Davis), a rootless, world-traveled American not making much of a living translating purple prose from Latin America. Her patently memorized Spanish is execrable, but she must speak it for the "feel," even an unnecessary line or so with Carmen (Maria Barranco), her friend and landlady who is husbandless-with-three-children and whose English is so good they converse fine in that language.
Alone with dictionaries, a laptop and a cat in her scruffy walk-up off the Ramblas, avoiding her mother in Michigan, the bespectacled and starting-to-wrinkle translator owes two month’s back rent and so cannot resist a three-thousand-dollar tender from flashy, mysterious Frankie Stevens (Marcia Gay Harden). In from California, the latter is desperately seeking Ben (Taylor), her estranged husband, for a legal matter beneficial to them both. Once he is located – in a swanky Gaudí-building apartment with a $10,000 coffee table – he’s to be photographed and a meeting set up.
Cassandra discovers that things and people are decidedly not what they appear and that names hint at deeper truths. She momentarily introduces herself as Brigid O’Shaughnessy (the audience did not laugh), but it is gay-club owner, performer and magician Hamilton Kincaid (Christopher Bowen)who spells out the obvious for us: "the trick is not to let your heart believe what your eyes see."
The prissy translator-turned-detective is pulled into the evershifting world of Ben/Bernadette, Hamilton, overdone hippyish April (Juliette Lewis), Frankie and – in case we have not yet been hooked – someone’s young blonde daughter Delilah (Courtney Jines), obnoxiously written and played. As in a visually seductive The Talented Mr. Ripley (itself a pale rehash of René Clement’s suspensefully suggestive Purple Noon), this is all set to showy Mediterranean colors, capped by gaudy red against ink black. Yet there is never the feeling that this is a worthy mystery, nor is there suspense of any interest. Attitudes, stilted dialogue, light pseudo-humorous music, ham-handed voice-over and the whole feel of the thing inevitably point to an innocuous ending.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD. After a requisite number of false trails and trials, all will be set right, and thoughtless, selfish folks will kiss and make up, with every available pair reunited. Our plain-Jane heroine, too, will learn a life lesson. Childless and mateless because one’s cute babies turn into messy teens, she sees that the Harlequin Books strain of novel she "brilliantly" finishes translating, La grande y la hija ("The Big One and [Her] Daughter"), has all along held a miraculous message. Parents and their children – here, female – should love one another, unconditionally if need be, because "it’s so hard to be a mommy."
So she heads back for a few weeks in Kalamazoo, on a mission to mend maternal fences. "Just checking," just in case, she kisses silly April on the lips, but the future does not lie in that direction, "not in this story." Nor, one hopes, in movies like this.
(Released by First Look and rated "R" for language and sexual content.)