- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 16, 2002

"Harrison's Flowers" asks us to marvel at the stupefying devotion of a Newsweek staffer named Sarah Lloyd, an impossible superheroic challenge for Andie MacDowell. The intrepid Sarah insists on personally rescuing her husband, Harrison Lloyd, impersonated by David Strathairn and identified as a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist who vanishes while on assignment for the magazine in war-ravaged Yugoslavia, circa 1991.

The flowers in the title allude to Harrison's avocation, botany, one of several domestic consolations established in the opening sequences, which also introduce the couple's children, outgoing little Margo and pensive, adolescent Cesar. Harrison has agreed to one last dangerous assignment in a war zone before retiring to less hazardous employment.

Everyone at the office seems to be preoccupied with Sarah, whether occasions are sunny or ominous. We know something bad has happened the morning she arrives for work and anxious glances are methodically flashed by every extra in camera range. Upon learning that Harrison is missing and presumed dead, Sarah defiantly insists on clinging to hope. "Something would have broken inside," she says. She also believes that Harrison has placed an enigmatic phone call that allows Miss MacDowell to try her hand, awkwardly, at plaintive monologue, talking desperately to a caller who never replies.

Mourners seem to have gathered prematurely at the Lloyd residence. Roused from her bed, Sarah scatters them indignantly as a Kaddish service for Harrison begins without her knowledge or endorsement, one gathers. Sarah seems to despise a mother-in-law played by Diane Baker, for reasons that are never clarified. We learn that the children are going to be parked in St. Louis while Sarah, convinced that she has glimpsed Harrison in a swarm of refugees seen on television, quixotically heads for the Balkans. It's a fool's errand that terminates in Vukovar, Croatia.

Loose ends start growing like weeds at this point in the exposition. Only sheer favoritism prevents the heroine from becoming instant road kill after she drives from Austria into war-torn Yugoslavia. The car goes fast, carrying a nice hitchhiker who gets a bullet in the gut. The filmmakers suggest that Sarah is about a pulse beat away from being a rape victim and then a fresh corpse. Spared a believably swift death, she becomes the mascot of some hard-bitten, ghoulish journalists who are determined to get as close to appalling camera subjects as they can.

This fraternity includes two colleagues of Sarah's husband, Adrien Brody as Kyle Morris and Elias Koteas as Yeager Pollack, already introduced to us at a Pulitzer Prize ceremony in the first reel. Arguably, relying on the resources of Newsweek and the experience of these war correspondents, bulked up by the presence of Brendan Gleeson as a fellow campaigner called Marc Stevenson, would have been Sarah's best avenue for discovering what happened to Harrison. Being there doesn't really enhance her appeal as a heroine or devoted spouse, but thar she scampers, soaking up all the simulated fury and carnage.

As a startling departure for Miss MacDowell, "Harrison's Flowers" generates only a grotesque quality of disillusionment . She's clearly the wrong acting instrument for this story.

The director, Elie Couraqui, a Frenchman, aggravates the situation by taking pains to make the war zone look authentically sinister and devastated. This form of simulation, which also revels a bit dubiously in picturesque atrocity, is repeatedly trivialized by the sight of Miss MacDowell playing amateur soldier of fortune.

However, heroine and movie refuse to be denied: One last agonized set piece finds Sarah wandering the corridors of a ravaged hospital in order to complete her mission in accord with optimum wishful thinking. If audiences are willing to swallow this never-say-die whopper, Miss MacDowell may get daring enough to go for the combative brass ring that backfired on Milla Jovovich a few years ago: Gangway for yet another Joan of Arc.


*1/2

TITLE: "Harrison's Flowers"

RATING: R (Sustained graphic violence in a wartime setting; occasional profanity and sexual candor, including allusions to sex crimes; allusions to drug use)

CREDITS: Directed by Elie Chouraqui. Screenplay by Mr. Chouraqui, Didier le Pecheur and Isabel Ellsen.

RUNNING TIME: 122 minutesMAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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