Dead Girl, The: Karen (Blue Car) Moncrieff Sophomore Effort

“The Dead Girl” is the disappointing sophomore effort of Karen Moncrieff, who made such a strong impression with her feature debut “Blue Car,” when it premiered at the Sundance Fest three years ago.

On the surface, the short narrative (94 minutes) seems grim and complex, being composed of five short stories, but it’s rather simple and the downbeat tone doesn’t devastate or depress us for reasons listed below. Each of the vignettes centers on a woman, and at first you get excited by the notion of a femme-driven tale (not a chick flick), populated by some of the best character actresses working today, including Toni Collette, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Steenburgen, and Brittany Murphy.

But, alas, it’s impossible to engage emotionally in the tale or its characters due to the way the stories are presented, directed, and acted. At the end, you feel that the whole is not bigger than the parts, and that the entire thing is more like an acting exercise for the gifted women, some of whom burst into hysterics at their very first appearance on screen.

The tale neither works as a thriller-mystery (it’s not even a scary or tragic jigsaw puzzle) nor as a character study of five women in crisis; the movie could have been called, “Notes on a Dead Girl.” What unifies the stories is the body of a dead blond girl named Krista (Brittany Murphy), found in the open fields; each of the strangers-women is related to her in one way or another. Moncrieff has given a name to each story, such as “The Mother” or “The Wife.”

In the first installment, “The Stranger,” a shy, reclusive woman Aren (Toni Collette sans makeup) is bewildered upon finding the nude corpse. Aren spends all her time tending the needs of her infirm mother (Piper Laurie). Emerging out of obscurity, she is befriended by Rudy (Giovanni Ribisi), a supermarket clerk, who takes her out on a date, but due to “mother problems” she can’t relate to him emotionally or physically.

Then there is the twentysomething sister Lean (Rose Byrne), a forensics expert who examines Krista’s corpse. Eager to know what has happened to her own missing sister, Jenny, she’s desperately seeking closure to this longtime family wound. She tells her parents (Mary Steenburgen and Bruce Davison), who are both in a state of denial, wishing to believe that Jenny is still alive. Steenburgen is good as Byrne’s mother who may have favored Jenny over Lean. Almost in defiance, he goes out to a party with Derek (a charming James Franco), a co-worker, and having sex with him.

The always-intense Marcia Gay Harden plays the mother, Melora, in “The Mother,” who arrives in town after Krista’s death. She learns about her runaway daughters life as a hooker and single mother from Kristas prostitute friend Rosetta (a solid Kerry Washington). You get the notion from the inquisitive mom that she’s clueless as to Krista’s personality or motivation.

The two worst sequences involve the estimable Piper Laurie (who looks terrible), who plays Toni Collette’s mother from the hell–lying in bed, she tyrannically orders and tortures her near-catatonic daughterand Mary Beth Hurt (overweight and hardly recognizable) in “The Wife” segment.

An unhappily married woman (to Nick Searcy), but fearful of being alone, Ruth tortures her husband for his mysterious disappearances from home. Searching through his wallet, she finds a photo of one of the female victims of a serial killer. The husband, Carl, as you may have figured by now, may or may not be Krista’s killer.

Brittany Murphy, in lurid makeup, finally shows up in the last ten minutes, in the weakest section, as the angry, violent hooker who lashes out at her abusive pimp Tarlow (Josh Brolin). Relating the events of Krista’s last day, the movie ends with her entering into an older man’s car, not before talking about her young daughter and licking the envelope of the latter’s birthday card.

Problem is that each of the stories is self-contained, all the way with a closure, but lacking poignancy even on its own terms. This problem is exacerbated at the end, which prompts you to ask, “Is that all there is to it” since adding up the parts together don’t yield a broader, more resonant meaning.

Moncreiff is a gifted writer-director concerned with women’s issues. In the coming-of-age saga “Blue Car,” she presented a wonderfully detailed portrait of one young woman (Agnes Bruckner) that displayed a light feminist streak. God knows, Americanand internationalcinemacould use the skills of a woman director, who’s good with female and male actors (David Straithairn was excellent in her debut).