- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 16, 2002

A handful of amusing, affecting moments relieve the formidable monotony achieved by John Sayles in "Sunshine State," a hazily misbegotten attempt at social and topical comedy set in a pair of sleepy oceanfront communities in Florida.

These moments account for perhaps 10 minutes in a running time that approaches 2½ hours. In retrospect, one thinks of them as oases in a strangely contrived desert.

The most promising plot thread introduces Edie Falco as Marly Temple, the down-in-the-dumps proprietor of a motel and restaurant in a town called Plantation Island, and Timothy Hutton as Jack Meadows, the easygoing landscape architect hired by hovering developers.

During a get-acquainted conversation in a bar, Marly remarks that the sponges died out years ago. "What killed them?" Jack asks. "Boredom," she replies. This joke is a booby trap for the movie; Mr. Sayles allows you to identify all too closely with the ill-fated sponges. Boredom rules where you least expect it because the plot falls flat trying to recall the very best of the Bill Forsyth comedies, 1983's "Local Hero."

In fact, "Sunshine State" stagnates almost before the writer-director can get all his characters in circulation. "Local Hero" started awkwardly but then hit an inspired stride once Peter Riegert as the advance man for Houston oil tycoon Burt Lancaster found himself in Scotland and started to fall in love with the seaside community he was assigned to scout. Mr. Sayles never gets untracked while trifling with a similar situation.

"Sunshine State" lacks assurance and sensual pleasure. It's as if it were being pushed grudgingly onto the screen by someone in poor health or a dismal state of mind.

Mr. Sayles magnifies the disappointment by failing to keep his ensemble in effective balance. A second major plot thread concerns Angela Bassett as Desiree Stokes, a prodigal daughter of the predominantly black Lincoln Beach, which neighbors predominantly white Plantation Island.

She supposedly has returned after an exile of 20 years or so and is respectably married to a Boston anesthesiologist named Reggie Perry (James McDaniel). She's still on edge, though, when confronted with her widowed paragon of a mother, Eunice Stokes, a soft-spoken tower of rectitude as portrayed by Mary Alice. Among other oversights, Mr. Sayles neglects to write the reconciliation scenes he needs.

He also clouds the mother-daughter conflict by giving Mrs. Stokes a supposedly troublesome ward, an abandoned teenage nephew named Terrell (Alex Lewis), introduced as a suspected pyromaniac and then softened into a harmless prop.

At the same time, Desiree's marriage plays second fiddle to a trick reunion with an old flame Tom Wright as the former star athlete who impregnated her long, long ago. If Mr. Sayles had any priorities in mind when formulating the Stokes-Perry plot, they got thoroughly muddled.

Alan King and Clifton James turn up as part of a Greek chorus of golfing partners. This foursome fails to set the scene adequately or comment on it with as much humorous flair as the filmmaker obviously intended.

Mary Steenburgen does her best to simulate a comic nervous breakdown as a Chamber of Commerce booster who despairs of winning friends and influencing people. Gordon Clapp has a dangling role as her spouse, a banker who may or may not be suicidal. Mr. Sayles finds it jolly to sabotage a couple of baffling suicide attempts anyway.

The gang of developers includes such familiar faces as Miguel Ferrer and Sam McMurray but never gets properly sorted out. It would be helpful if we could eavesdrop on a few strategy meetings or something. Bill Cobbs is a magisterial presence as an elderly pillar of the Lincoln Beach community, but his dialogue grows avuncular to a fault.

Ralph Waite has some invigorating hammy moments as Miss Falco's dad, who once thrived on the businesses that have become a burden to her. He has one especially touching oration while trying to encourage the pseudodelinquent Terrell. They meet by chance when the teenager delivers a prop coffin he has built for Mr. Waite's wife, Delia, played by Jane Alexander.

The impresario of the little local theater, Delia is observed rehearsing an adaptation of Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying," but Mr. Sayles neglects to take the script as far as opening night perhaps because he detected the self-rebuke in the title. "Sunshine State" does just lie there and die there after a while.


TITLE: "Sunshine State"

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Written, directed and edited by John Sayles.

RUNNING TIME: 141 minutes


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