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April 16, 2008 |

By TK Burton | Film | April 16, 2008 |

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter is based upon the book of the same name, written by first-time novelist Kim Edwards. Directed by Mick Jackson (whose bizarre resume includes The Bodyguard, L.A. Story, Tuesdays With Morrie and a bunch of TV stuff), it tells the story of a well-to-do couple in Lexington, Kentucky, during 1964. Gretchen Mol stars as Norah Henry, a pregnant housewife who is rushed to the hospital during a snowstorm by her doctor husband David (Dermot Mulroney). Once there, he hurries to deliver the child with the assistance of his faithful nurse, Caroline Gil (Emily Watson), only to discover that there is a second baby in there! Now, I will fully admit to being ignorant about medical history, so maybe some of our clinically inclined readers can help me out on this, but does it not seem odd that a woman (even in 1964) whose husband is, you know, a doctor, would be completely ignorant that she was having twins? Although they must have been teeny-tiny twins, since Mol appeared to have nothing more than a throw pillow under her shirt.

But I digress. The first twin is a healthy baby boy, who they name Paul. The second, however, is afflicted with what we now know as Down syndrome, or as Dr. Henry charmingly says, “She’s a mongoloid.” Not wanting to live with the stigma of having a defective child and fearing his wife would be devastated, he asks Nurse Gil to abscond with the baby and take it to a local home for such outcast children while he tells his wife the child died during the delivery. However, Caroline discovers that the home is little more than a Dickensian hellhole, where the children are strapped down to the beds and threatened with violence if they misbehave. Since Caroline is a compassionate soul, she cannot bear the thought of leaving the baby in this fetid dump and thus decides to adopt the child as her own. She moves to Pittsburgh after falling for a kindly truck driver to begin life anew. As time passes (the movie covers the characters’ lives from 1964 until the mid-’80s), we see Caroline and her boyfriend raise the girl, Phoebe (Krystal Nausbaum), as part of a happy family, while David struggles with his guilt, affecting his relationship with his wife and son until his entire family descends into a murky mess of alcoholism, infidelity and divorce.

Clearly, I am not the target demographic for this type of film, nor do I have any intention of reading the book. In fact, the most recent book I read was about a wizard private detective who saves the world from vampires. But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy something that’s different from my regular genres… if it’s good. And despite the luminous presence of Ms. Watson in this, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter is decidedly not good. In fact, it’s downright terrible. It’s the kind of ham-fisted, overly emotional filmmaking designed to make the ignorant masses feel like they’ve just witnessed something important. It is completely lacking in subtlety, style, tone and anything resembling skillful directing. It’s certainly not helped by the fact that the writing is lazy, stupid, and frankly, boring. Whether that parallels the novel, or whether the novel was victimized by John Pielmeier’s teleplay adaptation, I’ll certainly never know. Honestly, I’m completely OK with that. In fact, let’s get this review rolling so that I can finally kill my memory of it with Scotch when I’m done.

When I say that it suffers from lazy writing, I mean it. The first sign appeared seven minutes into the film, when I realized I had already seen the third flashback. While I’m generally not a big fan of the flashback as a storytelling device, I can understand the occasional need for one to provide some simple exposition. However, by switching to these gauzy, black-and-white clips, the movie disrupts itself, and shows that it’s fundamentally just too goddamn lifeless to think of a way to give the characters any backstory, instead relying on these shameless ploys to bring you up to speed.

Equally annoying, the film is filled with the kind of coincidences and forced characterization that can be infuriating about television in general. After Caroline decides not to abandon the child, her car runs out of gas in the middle of a blizzard. Fortunately, there is a kindly trucker named Al who picks her up … and her house happens to be on his route … and they eventually fall in love and move to Pittsburgh together and live happily ever-fucking-after. It’s the type of weakly thought-out plot contrivance that you see coming the moment the truck driver steps onto the scene. Caroline and Al go on to live in bliss with their wonderful adopted daughter, fighting the good fight for children with Down syndrome and trying to get her a place in public school. Meanwhile, David grows increasingly distant from Norah, obsessing over his photography hobby more than his family. Norah retaliates by sleeping around and drinking too much vodka. Instead of making an attempt to make the characters seem real, the writer(s) seemingly painted them with the broadest possible strokes. Everything about Al and Caroline — from their loving glances at each other, to their charming doting over Phoebe, to their gosh-darn blue-collar pluckiness — is designed to screech at you at the loudest of volumes, “CAN’T YOU SEE WHAT NICE PEOPLE THEY ARE?!” It’s an easy way for the writers to show them as the protagonists. Amazingly, despite working low-paying jobs and having a child with special needs, the couple never fights, never disagrees about anything, and Phoebe is shown as an absolutely perfect angel. I’m sorry, but I’m calling bullshit. I’m not saying that a child with Down syndrome is any better or worse than a child born healthy, but don’t try to tell me that raising that child doesn’t come with its share of stresses and difficulties. In fact, showing that side would simply have humanized them more. But instead the film would have us believe that their lives consist of nothing but dancing, sing-alongs, and starry-eyed, love-filled gazes.

At the same time, David and Norah are even more cardboard than Al and Caroline. Just as Phoebe’s adopted parents are sweet, kind and loving, Paul’s parents are thoughtless, distant and unpleasant. During a vacation on a beach somewhere, a stranger has to merely leer at Norah and creepily rub her hand a bit, and in the next scene she’s inelegantly stripping for him and boffing him in his beach house. David is making passes at Norah’s friends and ignoring his son, leading the son to fall and break his arm (you see what happens when you’re neglectful?!). Norah is a shrill, whiny nag of a woman who’ll nail anyone with a pulse while she drinks herself into submission. It’s just all so trite and obvious. Norah hates her husband. David hates his life. David wants his son to be a doctor, and his son — hey man, he just wants to play his music, man, you know? And thus, inevitably, Paul hates his father. He stumbles across his mother cheating so that, of course, he can hate her, too. The family is never shown to have even a single moment of joy or intimacy. It’s all over-simplified and completely pre-packaged for smooth and easy digestion. Don’t worry, folks! This way you don’t have to think about who’s right and who’s wrong! Just follow these simple cues and we’ll do it for you!

I realize that criticizing the plot and character development of a Lifetime movie is a bit like shooting fish in a teacup, but I can’t help myself. This movie fails on so many levels it’s almost farcical. Mol delivers a stunningly overwrought, shrewish performance that is the housewife equivalent of a mustache-twirling villain. Halfway through the movie, I wanted David to abandon her at the Arkham Asylum for the Disabled shown at the beginning. Mulroney apparently has two modes in this — “Frowning” and “Somber,” and literally nothing else. I think he smiles twice in the whole film. The various actors who play Paul are pretty much all the same annoying, bratty, “I learned it from watching YOU!” kind of after-school special character. About the only interesting thing about his character is witnessing his awesome hairstyle choices over the decades.

If there is a bright spot to be found in this godforsaken, sinking trash barge of a film, it’s Watson. I don’t know whether she’s short on cash or just bored, but she is completely out of place in this film. Fortunately, that’s a good thing. She succeeds in being the best part of a bad movie, and apparently is the only actor in the film who understands the word “subtlety.” She quietly takes over every scene she is in, conveying a sense of kindness and motherliness via subtle cues and softspoken lines. Yes, her character is just as obvious and one-note as the rest, but she still manages to make Caroline at least feel like a real person. Interestingly, perhaps the only other decent character is that of Phoebe, who is well-portrayed by Krystal Nausbaum. Sadly, the character of the adult Phoebe that Ms. Nausbaum plays is underused.

OK, so it’s a Lifetime movie. I’m probably not supposed to like it. I get that. But the saddest part is that there is actually a decent point to be made on this subject. It could have provided some insight into the difficulties in raising a disabled child, or dealing with the sense of loss when a parent gives one up for adoption. It could have shown some of the deficiencies that our educational system has when it comes to disabled kids (something that is addressed in a throwaway scene for about three minutes). But instead it goes for the cheap, affected story, relentlessly pulling at the heartstrings of those whose idea of good storytelling is the latest Danielle Steel novel. As a result, instead of delivering any semblance of a message, we are spoon-fed a dull, poorly acted, carelessly plotted microwave dinner of a film. It’s lukewarm, it tastes like wet Styrofoam, and I felt vaguely ill afterwards.

TK can be found wandering aimlessly through suburban Massachusetts, wondering how the hell he got there while yelling at the kids on his lawn. You can find him wasting his time at Uncooked Meat, where he is currently even more murderous than usual.

This Deal Is Getting Worse All The Time

The Memory Keeper's Daughter / TK

Film | April 16, 2008 |

TK Burton is the Editorial Director. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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