Monday, Dec 05, 2016
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Movie review: The Ballad of Jack and Rose **

Sorry Titanic-heads.

(Or is it Titan-trekkies?)

The Ballad of Jack and Rose has not a thing to do with characters played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. James Cameron is going over copyright infringment law as we speak.

There is water involved, however. And a mood of failed promise. And boats, but that's because this modest drama from director Rebecca Miller - the idiosyncratic daughter of late playwright Arthur Miller - is set on an unnamed island off the East Coast, and Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) has invited his new girlfriend (Catherine Keener), a mainlander, to join him and his daughter, Rose, on their tiny paradise.

Make that their hothouse.

Jack has a weak heart; he wears floppy suede hats, drives away real estate developers with a shotgun, and appears to be the long-lost Allman Brother. The film is about the limits of Jack's absolutism, though: His invitation to Kathleen (Keener) is an admission that Rose needs a woman in her life. It's also a way of relieving the oedipal anxiety humming beneath this father and daughter. But Rose isn't happy with the intrusion, homicidal urges get acted out - and if Cameron's blockbuster and this deeply-felt personal film share a thing, it's an ominous ambiance.

These people will suffer.

In the case of Rose (newcomer Camilla Belle) that suffering is self-inflicted. It's the by-product of a father's good intentions and an idealism that once looked brave and now seems rigid and disturbing to everyone but Rose, who tells her father that when he dies, she plans on killing herself.

These are intriguing characters, and their story addresses profundities (the snobbery of idealism, the heartlessness of commercialism), but there's enough plight here for a dozen tiny indie films. And does anyone notice that Rose is insane?

Jack and Rose is not a bad film, but it feels like one - the kind only well-meaning, talented filmmakers are capable of: too much literary pretense and not enough clear intent, too much ponderous symbolism, too much indulgence. The film works best when its keeps low to the ground and focuses on its namesakes, who behave as if they're an island on an island.

Day-Lewis' Jack is an Irishman who arrived in the United States in the '60s buoyed by the promise of the counterculture and joined a commune. Gradually that hippie dream vanished. His wife left him with Rose, then the commune faded away. Jack is the last holdout, living off the land, relying on solar power and collecting seaweed for mulch. The film opens in 1986, and Miller is wise to use the date as a dividing line: She keeps competing ideas about progress in her head, but makes the point much too late.

Day Lewis - who is married to Miller - brings a messianic soulfulness to everything he does, and it's genuinely moving when he meets the man (Beau Bridges) behind the land rush and realizes they're not so far apart as people, and that he can't bring himself to hide behind untested notions anymore. The Ballad of Jack and Rose is just as cacophonous: some notes ring true, others are lost in the noise.

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