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Humor and soul in ‘Dear Frankie’

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'DEAR FRANKIE:' Stars Gerard Butler (left) and Jack McElhone.
  • 'DEAR FRANKIE:' Stars Gerard Butler (left) and Jack McElhone.
Everyone has heard tales of the things parents will do to protect their children from harm: run into burning buildings, fight off wild animals, lift overturned cars with only adrenaline and love. But what if the thing you had to do to protect your child was lie to him? That’s the situation faced by a young Scottish mother in the superb “Dear Frankie,” coming this week to Market Street Cinema. A film of rare heart, as complicated as the bond between a parent and child can be, it is easily one of the best movies this reviewer has seen all year. In the film, Emily Mortimer plays Lizzie, a single mother scraping out a living in a Scottish port town with her deaf son Frankie (Jack McElhone). When Frankie was an infant, Lizzie fled her abusive husband and didn’t look back. Some years before, however, Frankie started asking questions about his father, and instead of telling him the ugly truth, Lizzie concocted an adventurer’s tale: That Frankie’s father was a globe-hopping sailor on the HMS Accra, a cargo ship she picked at random from a shipping registry. To back this up, Lizzie herself answers Frankie’s weekly letters to his father in the guise of her ex-husband (the scenes of her trudging to a stamp shop and buying stamps from far-flung countries to post with her envelopes are both heartbreaking and poetically beautiful). The truth, however, has a way of catching up with you. Here it is when the local bully informs Frankie that the Accra just so happens to be docking in their town in less than a week. Unable to tell her son that she has lied to him, Lizzie empties her savings and goes looking for a man willing to pretend he is Frankie’s father for the time that the Accra is in port. In Hollywood’s hands, this scenario would turn into a sticky-sweet marshmallow on the order of “Sleepless in Seattle.” Of course Lizzie and the faux father would fall in love, Frankie would bond over a game of catch with stand-in dad, Lizzie would finally tell the truth, and everyone would live happily ever after. Here, however, nothing is quite that simple. I don’t want to give away the beautiful ending of this film, but suffice it to say that it is a thing of purity and power, one that’s sure to bring a little mist to your eye. In the end, the best thing I can say about “Dear Frankie” is that you should see it — soon. In a sea of predictable and syrupy romantic comedies, “Dear Frankie” trumps all rivals with solid performances, a good bit of humor, a gorgeous script, and genuine soul. It’s a little gem of a film, and not to be missed. — By David Koon Cliched ‘Crash’ Paul Haggis, most recently known for penning the script to Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby,” has quickly jumped out of the cradle and into the director’s chair with his new film “Crash.” No doubt Haggis had proven himself worthy of a title-match for director for the blunt emotional force of “Baby,” but even with such hard-hitting beginnings, Haggis fails to live up to the high standards placed on him for his much anticipated follow-up. Even with the exceptional talent of Don Cheadle — the best and most under-recognized black actor working today — backing the project as the film’s producer and one of its leading actors, “Crash” simply cannot stand up under its own weight. While it has moments of unsettling drama and moral potency, its plot is contrived and manipulative and ends up collapsing along with its ambitions. The story combines several different narrative threads, each with its own case of racial tension and self-discovery, that collide within a 36-hour time period in the isolated streets of Los Angeles. The thread that begins the film involves a fender-bender involving Detective Graham (Cheadle) and his partner, Ria (Jennifer Esposito), with an Asian-American woman. Cheadle explains in voice-over that, in L.A., the only way people can learn to live with each other is through frequent crashes to separate them from a world of metal and glass. Nice little metaphor, sure, but the situation becomes an all too convenient plot device for staging Haggis’ themes of racial bigotry as a disguise for inner conflict. From there the story endlessly repeats itself in one outlandish scenario after another, and while each of these narratives is interesting in itself, Haggis fails to streamline them into a serendipitous morality tale. His attempts at interconnection strip the film of its credibility and feel gimmicky. It’s a shame the film is so flawed, because it has some thoughtful and provocative moments. In one scene, when Officer Ryan (Matt Dillon) pulls over a black driver because his wife was performing fellatio on him, Ryan sexually molests the wife in a show of white domination. Later on the same woman is involved in a deadly car accident and Ryan is the only one available to save her life. Both the woman and Ryan have to overcome their inhibitions about one another in order to salvage what they both know is more important — simply put, life. And while simplicity drives home much of the film’s points (just as it did in “Baby”), it also is detrimental. “Crash” tries to be a film of importance, but it sacrifices its dramatic poignancy for universalized cliche. — By Dustin Allen

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