Bleakness Dominates in 'City of Hope'

'CITY of Hope" is the most ambitious movie of John Sayles's career, by a wide margin. As its title indicates, the film is about a city - fictional, but based on urban New Jersey, where Mr. Sayles lives - and it tells a number of interwoven stories instead of focusing on one or two protagonists.The stories are a varied lot. One centers on a contractor with dubious connections in local politics; another deals with his son, an unstable young man with an uncertain future. Additional characters include a police officer with romantic difficulties, a teacher falsely accused of a sex crime, an African-American politician with an ethical problem, and a woman raising a handicapped child. Not to mention a corrupt mayor, a "fixer" involved in shady operations, a couple of muggers, and a deranged homeless man. Plus many others - enough for the film's distributors to send critics a "who's who" listing characters, performers, and capsule descriptions of their roles. As portrayed by Sayles, today's urban scene is steeped in crisis, at least in the Northeast where "City of Hope" takes place. The narrative works its way through a variety of problems and confrontations, ultimately reaching its resolution in a vision of fixed despair and futility, symbolized by a demented man howling his impotent misery to the rooftops in a repetitive litany. Not that every moment of the picture is equally bleak. There are moments of happiness for some of the characters, and Sayles's screenplay even falls into feebly motivated sentimentality at least once, when a grievously wronged man abruptly makes peace with self-absorbed enemies who have done their best to destroy him. This is the weakest moment in "City of Hope," which is generally credible in terms of story, if not always convincing on an emotional level. But such a lapse into unpersuasive romanticism indicates that Sayles's ambition isn't yet equalled by his storytelling ability. The movie seems rather studied, full of interesting ideas that should work a little better than they do. The acting has the solid, earthbound sensibility that Sayles tends to favor in his movies, especially when such talents as Vincent Spano, Tony Lo Bianco, and Sayles himself - frequently the most dependable actor in his own movies - are on the screen. Robert Richardson did the gritty cinematography, punctuating the story with striking camera work that packs more punch than anything in Sayles's previous work. Sayles's career has been on a generally upward trajectory for several years now, ever since his masterpiece The Brother From Another Planet proved that he has vastly more imagination than overrated trifles like "Return of the Secaucus Seven" and "Lianna" indicated. "City of Hope" raises the stakes of his career in terms of future expectations, since it points to a new interest in orchestrating multiple elements of plot, characterization, and cinematic style into dynamic and unpredictable structures. At the moment, it's far from certain that Sayles has the filmic brilliance necessary for pulling off such projects. But it will be fascinating to watch him try.

Rated R for strong language, sensuality.

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