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The best part of seeing Reservation Road was partaking in the experience of seeing two amazing trailers. The previews were for Funny Games, a shot-by-shot remake of the brilliant Austrian original (and directed by the same director ten years later), and Atonement, whose plot I am not completely sure of, but I am under the movie’s spell and cannot wait for its December 7 release. “And now,” as the members of Monty Python say, “for something completely different,” something not entrancing, awe-striking, or even entertaining…

Reservation Road is about two men whom we are supposed to perceive as equal (thanks to clever editing). Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix) is the usual suburban dad with the usual suburban wife (Jennifer Connelly) with the usual 2.5 (okay, 2) kids, one of which is musically talented. While the four of them return home from the son’s recital, Dwight (Mark Ruffalo) is returning his son from a Red Sox game to Dwight’s ex-wife’s (Mira Sorvino’s) home.

In the meantime, Ethan and company pull over for a bathroom break. Because of a combination of Dwight rushing to reach his destination and not paying attention to the road, he hits Ethan’s son (who stepped out the car for a moment). Dwight, scared, responds by driving off. Ethan is heartbroken now that his son is dead, and Dwight is afraid of the consequences of his actions.

In the first ten minutes, even a Douglas Sirk film can’t handle this much drama. However, while the movie should be holding our attention for the following hour-and-a-half, Reservation Road loses much gas after take-off and comes back down for a landing, but I wouldn’t say that it crash-lands.

Instead of really investigating issues that would come up during such a situation, director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) instead focuses on creating more “drama,” meaning plenty of contrivances that would only take place in a universe occupied by an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters. Rather than have faith in the inherent drama of the story, George elevates the story to soapy melodrama, leaving us distant from characters that don’t feel all that real despite the tragedy they have all gone through.

The performances are intense (Phoenix, Ruffalo, Sorvino, and Connelly like to yell a lot), but does that mean they’re any good? I don’t think the actors provided much depth to the characters other than that they’re either really sad or really angry. Honestly, I think the Academy will fall for the old trick that if an actor/actress does a lot of screaming in a movie, it’s the performance of the century. As a matter of fact, Reservation Road may even win for best picture at the Oscars, falling in line with a series of syrupy, bad films that shouldn’t have been nominated for such an honor in the first place (Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Gladiator, et al). Do I see a pattern?

Reservation Road isn’t awful, but after seeing the rest of the movie following the opening scene or two, we realize the movie is a scam. George pulls a switch-a-roo on us, giving us a forced storyline with puppets, instead of actors, performing at the whim of the script. By the time the movie reaches its “climax,” we don’t care, and we’re just checking the time to see when it’s going to wrap up already.

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