- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 25, 2001

''The Shipping News" reinforces the impressions already made by "American Beauty," "Pay It Forward" and "K-Pax": Actor Kevin Spacey is likely to be more fun as a sneak and a menace than as an object of sentiment or pity. Maybe it's time to rediscover the threatening Mr. Spacey of "Seven," "The Usual Suspects" and "A Bug's Life."
Unfortunately, "The Shipping News," derived from the 1993 novel that won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, proves as immune to cinematic gratification as "A Thousand Acres," "The Sweet Hereafter" and "Affliction." Those films also played malicious with the heartaches and family ties of small-town characters.
Mr. Spacey is introduced as a despondent doormat named Quoyle who works for a newspaper in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and is known only by his punning last name. The book teems with lore about the tying of knots, and Quoyle certainly needs to get his life untangled or maybe untracked.
A misalliance with a shameless but short-lived slut named Petal Bear (Cate Blanchett) leaves Quoyle a grieving widower with a little girl named Bunny, played by sisters Alyssa, Kaitlyn and Lauren Gainer. A surprise visit from a long-lost aunt, Agnis Hamm (Judi Dench), nudges Quoyle to an abandoned family homestead near a fishing village in Newfoundland.
Salvaging the fixer-upper discovered still anchored by cables to a rocky promontory is a project that nature seems destined to mock, but redemption does catch up with Quoyle in this northeasterly variation on the "Northern Exposure" setting. He gets a job at a weekly paper owned by Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn) and becomes an invaluable addition to the undermanned staff, which consists of Tert Card (Pete Postlethwaite), Beaufield Nutbeem (Rhys Ifans) and Billy Pretty (Gordon Pinsent).
If you notice author E. Annie Proulx's proclivity for funny names, try a few more on for size: Bayonet Melville (Larry Pine) and his homicidal spouse, Silver (Jeanetta Arnette), and single mom Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore), who emerges as consolation for the lovelorn Quoyle after both have evicted some ghosts from their closets. Add to the list Grace Moosup, Mavis Bangs, Alvin Yark, Hunky Guy and Daycare Mom (just kidding about the last two, which are generic extras).
Between the whimsy and the sappiness, abandon all hope. A kind of wavy, nutbeemy consistency prevails. One looks to stormy weather for deliverance from the gathering perversity and coyness, and every hint of a blizzard becomes as welcome as the crocuses and daffodils of spring.
Unfortunately, nothing proves cleansing enough to wipe the slate clean of characters whose staying power looks flimsy at first glance. Childhood drowning traumas, dreadful incestuous secrets and mysterious old coots on midnight stalking errands keep the puzzlement factor churning for a while. Once the puzzles are clarified, the subplot rumpus dwindles into a hollow wheeze.
Even the novelty value of the locations may have been trumped to some extent by "The Widow of St. Pierre," which got better scenic advantage out of seascapes and snowscapes in Nova Scotia.
The best news will be no "News" if anyone suggests a holiday excursion to "The Shipping News."

TITLE: "The Shipping News"
RATING: R (Occasional profanity, sexual vulgarity and graphic violence; episodes of simulated intercourse; dream sequences and flashbacks revolving around morbid or traumatic elements; fleeting nudity)
CREDITS: Directed by Lasse Hallstrom
RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes

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