Reckless: Norman Rene Directs Craig Lucas Drama, Starring Mia Farrow

Mia Farrow should stop playing mousy suburban housewives, abused by their husbands. She’s getting too old for this shtick. Besides, Farrow has been there many times before–for Woody Allen and others. So it’s unfortunate that her latest rendition of this role dominates Reckless, the new collaboration of writer Craig Lucas and director Norman Rene.

This duo, who have worked together successfully on stage and film, is best known for making a groundbreaking movie about gay life in the Age of Aids, the remarkable Longtime Companion. Since then, they’ve moved onto making a peculiar brand of film: dark comedies that while grounded in everyday life strive to evoke magical realism. Their 1992 Prelude to a Kiss, which starred Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan, belongs to this genre and now Reckless, one of the darkest Christmas yarns you’re likely to see this season.

Adapted by Lucas from his play, narrative centers on Farrow’s Rachel, a perpetually perky suburban housewife who seems to have it all–a perfect home, nice husband, even nice kids. But on the night before Christmas, as she nestles into bed, her hubby (Tony Goldwyn) tells her that he has hired a hit man to do her in–anything to silence her obnoxious, ever-cheery chirping.

What is she going to do Dressed in nothing more than a cozy flannel nightie, Rachel hysterically bolts through the bedroom window. From her backyard, she embarks on a bizarre odyssey in search of some semblance of emotional security, peace of mind, sanity–and Santa Claus.

Lucas wanted to evoke the spirit of Candide in his holiday saga, which, like the Voltaire classic, is densely rich in ideas, emotions, and characters. Going through all 50 states, Rachel stumbles across a series of almost surreal calamities, encountering a cast of truly eccentric characters along the way.

Her first meeting is with Lloyd (Scott Glenn), a seemingly sympathetic social worker, who invites her to his home for the holidays. At his place, she befriends and later bonds with his paraplegic deaf-mute wife Pooty (played by the always wonderful Mary-Louise Parker). Adopting them as surrogate family, Rachel begins to piece her life back together–until she realizes that Pooty hides a big secret (which cannot be revealed here) from her husband and that their life is based on a lie.

Realizing that despite what Frank Capra preached in his comedies, it isn’t a wonderful life, she moves on. Next stop is a non-profit humanitarian association called “Hands Across the Sea,” which leads to another awful encounter, this time with a homicidal bookkeeper (Deborah Rush).

Up to this point, Reckless is a bit dreary and tedious, despite–or perhaps because of–the filmmakers’ studious effort at being simultaneously serious and comic, dark and bright, bitter and sweet. The tone and mood of the story change from scene to scene, but the transitions made by director Rene are maladroit rather than seamless, and Mia Farrow’s annoying acting makes them even more awkward.

The movie picks up some momentum once Rachel gets help from a skeptical shrink (Debra Monk), a professional who insists that her nightmarish life is really just a dream. Rachel continues her trek across a tabloid-tinged America that would make Oprah–and the other TV shows–proud. Along the way, she meets a manic game show host (Giancarlo Esposito) and a nun (Eileen Brennan) with a dark past.

Miraculously, the film’s last segment is touching, if also too sentimental. In an unexpected turn of events, Rachel encounters Tom Jr. (Stephen Dorff), an insomniac undergraduate who provides the last link to her past. This young man enables her to find redemption and reinvent herself back to a more hopeful future.

Despite efforts to open up the tale, Lucas’ screenplay betrays its theatrical origins. I haven’t seen the stage production, but I suppose that this kind of material is much more effective on stage, where the audience is more willing to suspend disbelief, accept contrivance, sink for two hours into a world that’s at once real and unreal. But on screen, the camera, like the film’s title, is reckless. And when–with the notable exception of Mary-Louise Parker and Eileen Brennan who excel at playing odd, whimsical characters–the performers lack the charisma to transplant the viewers into the required surreal world, the entire movie collapses.

It’s not a coincidence that Prelude to a Kiss, which was just as ambitious a movie as Reckless, suffered from the same weakness. Both pictures prove that ideas that work on stage are not necessarily effective when translated onto the big screen.