'American Beauty' redux

'Little Children' has great actors, but a smirky attitude.

Suburb bashing is back. That overrated Oscar winner "American Beauty" set the template for funny-sad movies about angst-ridden denizens of the 'burbs, and now "Little Children" carries it forward.

Or maybe backward would be more accurate. Tom Perrotta's popular 2004 novel is co-written and directed by Todd Field, whose debut feature "In the Bedroom" gave a devastatingly accurate depiction of how people cope with grief and misery.

But that film was based on fiction by Andre Dubus, a far more brooding and complex writer than Perrotta, who also gets coscreenplay credit on "Little Children." By turns jokey, portentous, and pretentious, the movie immediately sizes up each of its protagonists and never budges from that assessment.

Sarah (Kate Winslet) is a mom with a master's degree in English lit who seems confounded by her marriage to a high-powered businessman (Gregg Edelman) who turns out to have a penchant for porn. Brad (Patrick Wilson), a Mr. Mom who can't manage to pass the bar exam, is the hunk she takes up with. (The other local moms breathlessly refer to him as "the Prom King.") His wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) is a successful PBS documentarian with a well-to-do background and a snippy, no- nonsense attitude at home.

Driving a wedge through this East Wyndam, Mass., community is the arrival at his mother's house of Ronald (Jackie Earle Haley) after serving two years in prison for indecent exposure to minors. The town is papered with posters warning parents of his presence. In one sequence, Ronald, in mask and snorkel, dives into a public pool filled with children. Field films the scene like something out of "Jaws."

To their credit, the filmmakers don't try to downplay Ronald's creepiness by pretending he's just some misunderstood Boo Radley type. In the film's best scene, he goes on a blind date with a woman (Jane Adams) who is almost as troubled as he is. By evening's end, she lives to regret it.

But Ronald's main function in the movie is as a decoy. Everyone is so troubled by his perversities that they ignore their own. We in the audience are put in the position of judging everyone's behavior, and just in case we're stymied, a facetious-sounding male narrator's voice clues us in. This overly literary device drops out about halfway through for no apparent reason, only to resurface near the end.

Although some of the actors are terrific, especially Winslet, Haley, Adams, and Phyllis Somerville as Ronald's loving mother, their work is undercut by the film's attitude of smirky superiority toward its characters. The superiority is unearned. "Little Children" is nothing more than "Peyton Place" with a Ph.D. Grade: C

Rated R for strong sexuality, nudity, language, and some disturbing content.

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