Rich With Missed Opportunities

`Rich in Love' bypasses lasting resonance for scenes of immediate impact

BRUCE BERESFORD hails from Australia, but he's a filmmaker with international tastes. His recent work includes the poignant "Mr. Johnson," made in Africa, and the ponderous "Black Robe," shot in the Canadian wilderness. He also has a recurring love affair with the American South, where he filmed the superb "Tender Mercies" and the popular "Driving Miss Daisy."

"Rich in Love" finds Mr. Beresford tackling a Southern story once again, and suggests that he's getting lazy about his explorations of that fascinating region.

The characters are interesting enough, but the screenplay by Alfred Uhry - who wrote "Driving Miss Daisy" for stage and screen - is full of peculiar holes, and Beresford doesn't muster enough visual imagination to compensate for the questions they raise and the issues they dodge. Many moviegoers may also reject the film's attitude toward marriage, which is portrayed as hard to put up with and dispensable in the long run.

Ultimately, the picture has only two elements that rise above criticism: the sublime Southern sunsets that punctuate the story, and the pleasure of seeing Albert Finney toss off a subtle and delicious performance as if this were the easiest task in the world.

The tale begins with the breakup of a family. Coming home from high school one day, a girl named Lucille discovers that her mother has skipped out on the household to try an independent life. Lucille knows she can't run the home and look after her eccentric father by herself, so she summons her older sister, who arrives pregnant and toting a brand-new husband.

Together they keep life going as smoothly as possible, while staying on the lookout for the missing mom, whose whereabouts remain as mysterious as why she left.

"Rich in Love" has some rich and lovely moments. The best of these occur when the story slows down and allows a single character to express some small nugget of emotion, as when the father's new girlfriend tries to hide her feelings at hearing that his long-lost wife may have returned.

What makes "Rich in Love" oddly unsatisfying despite such moments is its habit of skipping over important scenes that ought to carry much of the picture's emotional weight. Lucille's mother and father eventually have their long-awaited reunion, for instance, but we see only the first few seconds of it, and there's little explanation of how they arrive at their final decision to maintain a friendly separation instead of a troubled marriage.

While these gaps don't interfere with the narrative or make it difficult to follow, they reduce a potentially deep and many-layered saga to a string of thinly dramatic episodes aimed at immediate impact rather than lasting resonance. Much the same happened in "Driving Miss Daisy," where a worthwhile message of racial tolerance was weakened by the omission of scenes (showing family life, for instance) that might have given the black hero as much three-dimensional humanity as the white heroine was granted.

In both cases, the result is not a bad movie, but a missed opportunity to explore stimulating characters in as much depth and breadth as they deserve - and to make a coherent case for questionable conclusions, such as the skepticism toward marriage that becomes a theme of "Rich in Love."

There is plenty of strong acting in "Rich in Love," most notably from Mr. Finney as the father, Piper Laurie as his new romantic interest, and Alfre Woodard as a family acquaintance. Kathryn Erbe is solid as Lucille, and it's refreshing to see Kyle MacLachlan make an amiable impression outside director David Lynch's bizarre territory. Jill Clayburgh and Ethan Hawke round out the impressive cast.

Based on a Josephine Humphreys novel, "Rich in Love" has been glowingly photographed by Peter James, convincingly designed by John Stoddart, and competently edited by Mark Warner, who keeps the narrative flowing so smoothly you almost don't notice its missing elements until the film is over and there's time to think about what you've seen. The late George Delerue composed the score, which is pleasant but overdone; less of it would have made a greater impact.

* `Rich in Love' has a PG-13 rating. It contains a number of sexual situations and discussions, and some vulgar language.

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