'Sunshine State' tells a mostly cloudy story

If you think of Florida as a vacation haven and a retiree's dream, "Sunshine State" may disillusion you.

This ambitious drama sweeps through a town called Delrona Beach with a skeptical eye, focusing on ordinary people living everyday lives.

They benefit from the place's assets – everyone likes warm weather and tourist-friendly businesses – but they also suffer from its shortcomings, including racial tensions and rivalries driven by commercial greed.

The movie has a long list of characters, including a civic booster with an artificial smile, an unhappy motel manager with too many men in her life, and an African-American woman visiting home after years of absence.

Others range from acquisitive real-estate entrepreneurs to a likable little boy whose psychological problems are more serious than anyone realizes.

With so many absorbing characters, it's too bad "Sunshine State" never jells as richly as writer-director-editor John Sayles wants it to. He's so busy orchestrating these intersecting lives into a large-scale symphony that he doesn't manage to give each individual the fine details that a persuasive portrait needs.

Despite his fascinating subject and an impressive cast – which includes Angela Bassett, Timothy Hutton, Edie Falco, Miguel Ferrer, Jane Alexander, Alan King, and Mary Steenburgen – Sayles lets his story drift in too many directions, as if he'd lost his Florida road map somewhere along the way during his travels.

Sayles helped launch today's vigorous wave of indie filmmaking with hits like "Return of the Secaucus Seven" and "Eight Men Out," and he remains a bold maverick outside the Hollywood system almost 25 years later.

He likes to work on a big canvas from time to time – the pungent "Lone Star" and the uneven "City of Hope" are popular examples – but he seems more comfortable with smaller projects like "Limbo" and "The Brother From Another Planet," which are still his best pictures.

In the end, "Sunshine State" is a guided tour with a few too many destinations.

• Rated PG-13; contains vulgar language and adult themes.

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