April 18, 2005

The Ballad of Jack and Rose

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If this movie were actually a ballad, it would have been yanked off the stage with one of the hooks that you remember from Looney Toons shorts. What tries to be a study in 1960’s counterculture facing its challenges as time goes on turns into some sort of messed up, drawn-out, and, most of all, boring and self-reverential snoozefest.

The Ballad of Jack and Rose, directed and written by Rebecca Miller, starts out on an island “somewhere on the East coast” of the United States in 1986. We soon find out that the island used to be the home of a commune in the late 1960s and 70s but now all that remains is its steadfast founder, Jack Slavin (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his daughter Rose (Camilla Belle).

However the seemingly utopian (and I might add quite eco-friendly) setting where they live is being attacked in the form of the always annoying urban sprawl. Jack fights off the seemingly dofus developer Marty Rance, played by seemingly dofus actor, Beau Bridges, by firing shotgun shells at the construction workers.

However Jack and Rose’s ballad becomes out of tune for other reasons. Jack is dying from some sort of heart condition and decides to bring “outsiders” (Gasp!) to the island. This pretty much means that he is transporting his on-and-off again girlfriend Kathleen (Catherine Keener) and her two sons; Rodney (Ryan McDonald), who has yet to officially come out of the closet, and Thadius (Paul Dano), who is pretty much a complete dirtbag. When the new part of the family moves in, Rose feels betrayed by Jack and trouble starts to brew in paradise.

One of Ballad’s main faults is its choppy continuity. Emotional moments in the film occur too early and too often. As pretty much everybody learns in elementary school, good drama should be made of linked scenes that slowly build up to a climax. However, in Ballad, the film simply stumbles along with scenes mainly conducted between two or three actors that start and resolve themselves in 10 minutes. It usually goes something like: “I’m mad at you”, “Tell me about it”, “Oh I see”, “I still love you” and so on. The only result is that when the climax actually occurs, you can’t even realize it. I think it happens somewhere around when Jack has a mental breakdown in Beau Bridges’ kitchen table, but I’m still not quite sure.

Ballad’s other main shortcoming is its flirtation with the absurdity. Scenes involve Rose firing a shotgun at her father and Kathleen in bed, a cottonmouth snake roaming around the house and sex between potential family members. One of the weirdest aspects of the film occurs when Jason Lee shows up as a florist who later creates his own commune. All in all, the film just becomes more and more absurd and unexplainable. Last week I reviewed Sahara, which had a plot revolving around explorers finding a Confederate ironclad in the middle of the desert in Africa, and I still found that storyline more believable than that of Ballad’s.

Miller at least shows good cinematographic skills in her film and does choose a great cast. Daniel Day Lewis gets a little too much attention (He’s married to Miller, coincidence?) and, after two hours of watching his character moan and groan it starts to get annoying. What to really watch out for is the younger ensemble of Belle, McDonald and Dano. These newcomers are also joined by Jena Malone, who you would recognize as Donnie Darko’s girlfriend playing the weird character of Red Berry. It’s a little relieving while not trying to fall asleep to know that all of these new talents can look towards more promising films in the future.

In the end, The Ballad of Jack and Rose is simply a two-hour-long tirade which seems more like four. In the mumble jumble of the film the audience loses any idea of what the original theme was supposed to be. Instead, the only aspect of this film that the audience will take away from it is the relatively good soundtrack of various Bob Dylan songs and two hour nap.

Archived article by Mark Rice
Sun Film Editor