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Films
by Kathi Maio

Post Traumatic Straitjacket Syndrome

AS I WALKED out of a screening of The Jacket, a young man inexplicably asked me "Did you like it?"

"Yes," I replied. And that was no lie. And yet, I would have been hard-pressed to pinpoint why. For even in that disorienting adjustment period during which I walked out of a darkened theater into the light of the afternoon, I recognized that what I had seen was not a particularly good movie.

Like most films today, the logic was cracked. And the thing seemed made out of spare parts from countless other movies. One part La Jetée, one part Millennium, one part Somewhere in Time, two parts One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Snakepit, with smaller fractions of a dozen other films, and a soupçon of Touched by an Angel, The Jacket is an undeniable hodgepodge. But like a really well-made replicant, it can fool you into thinking it's the real McCoy.

Massy Tadjedin's screenplay is not the major selling point here—at least not as it has been fiddled and diddled and edited.

The story (originally by Tom Bleecker and Marc Rocco) involves a well-meaning G.I. during the first Gulf War. After a severe head wound, Jack Starks (Adrien Brody) is shuffled through VA hospitals and then bounced back to the snowy back roads of his native Vermont (here, played by Scotland). Jack is missing some of his memory, and is still a bit off his bean. But he remains, despite his travails, a young man of good intentions. He's the kind of fellow who would, without question, stop to help a substance-impaired woman (Kelly Lynch) and her young daughter, Jackie (Laura Marano), whose old truck is broken down on the side of a snowy road.

Later, he is picked up by a young man (Brad Renfro) who is on the lam. As his luck—all bad—would have it, Starks is wounded yet again when the young man kills a cop and then leaves the unconscious Jack to take the blame. Unfortunately for our hapless hero, the police seem not to know how to investigate a murder and public defenders seem not to know how to defend their clients up in the Northern Kingdom of 1992. The ever more mentally fragile Starks is found not guilty by reason of insanity, and sent to a mental hospital called Alpine Grove.

There, disillusioned, alcoholic Doctor Becker (played by a somnolent Kris Kristofferson) decides to experiment on him. His unusual mode of treatment consists of shooting his patients up with mind-altering drugs, binding them in straitjackets, and then locking them in a basement morgue drawer for hours at a time. During his ordeal, Starks begins to regain glimpses into his wartime experiences as well as his frame-up for murder. You might think that the plot would thereafter explore Starks's need to recover his memory so as to clear his name of the murder charge. But if you were expecting that turn of events, you'd be wrong. The crime story in the original setup is one of a half dozen subplots that are never fully explored and are certainly never resolved in The Jacket.

Instead, the plot veers in a completely different direction. It soon appears that Jack can not only see flashes of his past during his torture sessions, he can also jump forward some fifteen years into the future. In 2007, he meets a self-destructive young woman who brings him back to her place on Christmas Eve to crash. Jack soon realizes that the drunken, hard-bitten young woman (played by the lovely Keira Knightley) he has just met is none other than the cute little girl, Jackie, he had helped right before his frame-up.

Before long, Jack has (way, way too easily, I might add) convinced Jackie that he is that kindly figure from her childhood, fast-forwarded without aging. And the two fall in love and bed down together. (Ewwww!) Just to complicate matters further, Jack realizes that he is destined to die of a blunt head trauma in a very few days. (What is it with this guy and head injuries?)

I think I'm supposed to say, here, that the two lovers race against the clock to change Starks's deadly fate. But, you know, they really don't.

What Jack hopes to accomplish during his time-travel (besides hanging out with a beautiful babe) is a real mystery. As is much of the rest of this story. The time loops with Starks interacting with present and future versions of his doctors, Becker and the more humane if enigmatic Dr. Lorenson (Jennifer Jason Leigh), will leave you dizzy after a while. Who said what to whom when becomes harder and harder to keep track of with every scene.

As indicated earlier, very few plotlines get tidied away in this movie. At least, not so your average audience member could understand. The movie mystery? Nah. The love story? Nope. And there are subplots that aren't even set up well enough to be explained or resolved. A cruel orderly who helps with the treatment/torture sessions in the early nineties seems to be a patient at the hospital in 2007. I never had a clue what that was about!

The Jacket is definitely one of those jumbles of a movie that I would normally rail against. And yet, in this case, the film still somehow manages to hang together as whole.

In trying to figure out why, all I can offer is the prodigious application of talent and atmosphere. The acting is quite good in The Jacket—notably that of Mr. Brody, since the film stands or falls based on his ability to sell the time-traveling hero. There is a naturalness and ease to Adrien Brody's performance—even when he's thrashing about and screaming—that makes the preposterous loose ends seem plausible. And that underfed, big-eyed puppydog thing he has going on fits the part, too. (Although, with that impressive beak of his, big-eyed parrot might be a more apt comparison.)

Peter Deming's photography is always evocative. And director John Maybury brings an artist's sensibility to what would have otherwise been a piece of dreck.

Maybury is known in the cinematic community for his compelling and unpleasant film biography of British painter Francis Bacon, Love Is the Devil (1998). The sometime painter and one-time editor and set/costume/production designer has also made a name for himself in the field of short, experimental films. He has even worked extensively in music and environmental video. So, although he is less than a household name in Hollywood, the man knows how to create an eloquent look and feel for his filmic work. And that talent has never been more needed than in this strange mélange of a movie.

In the end, I can't exactly recommend The Jacket. Nevertheless, I wouldn't want to actually dissuade you from watching it either. It is one of those rare films that somehow, against all odds, ends up being more than the sum of its varied and very disjointed parts.

DVD EXTRA: WONDERFALLS

I've never understood why anyone would bother buying a complete season of, say, Everybody Loves Raymond on DVD. The show has been repeated to death on CBS and is now in round-the-clock syndication in just about every city in the world. The "First Complete Season" of Carnivale, that I can see. Not everyone gets HBO—more's the pity. So lots of television fans (who have been hearing very intriguing things from friends about the show) now have, with the video release, a chance to see if Carnivale is really as strange and intense as they have heard.

But my favorite kind of DVD collection is one that brings completely lost (and not just obscure) treasures to light. Wonderfalls: The Complete Viewer Collection is just such a set.

If you have never heard of Wonderfalls, I will not be surprised. Co-created by Todd Holland (Malcolm in the Middle, The Larry Sanders Show) and Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me, Star Trek: Voyager) for Fox, the quirky comedy-drama never had full network support. (Guess the suits were too interested in making and promoting cheap and loathsome "reality" entries like The Swan and My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé.) Pushed back from fall to midseason, and then dumped to Fridays at 9 p.m., Wonderfalls was set up to fail. And did. Fox aired only four episodes of the series and then unceremoniously yanked it forever.

Critics and fans who had already fallen for the show were outraged. Campaigns were launched to save the show or get it picked up by another network, and when that went nowhere fast, fans simply prayed for a chance to see the last nine unaired episodes. And finally, here they are on DVD.

The DVDs are a delight—as well as a total downer. Seeing those final episodes makes you realize how good the show really was, and how much better it might have become, if allowed to grow and develop, along with its characters. Central among these is an Ivy-League educated, self-involved twenty-four-year-old slacker named Jaye Tyler (the charming Caroline Dhavernas), who wears her well-rehearsed disdain for social involvement and personal achievement like a badge of honor. She also wears a yellow vest with a name patch on the front of it, as she (just barely) works as a flippant store clerk at a local Niagara Falls souvenir shop.

Jaye tries very hard to avoid her family of overachievers, along with everyone else, until two things occur: She meets a bartender (Tyron Leitso) on the rebound from a very bad honeymoon experience; and numerous logos, emblems, toys and tchotchkes—all in the form of animals—start giving her cryptic yet emphatic directives.

Wonderfalls has been compared to Joan of Arcadia. Both shows, created concurrently, obviously draw on the Joan of Arc story. And both were created in the wake of 9/11. But while there is no doubt that CBS's young Joan is truly talking to her creator, in various human forms, Jaye's situation is much different. Her animal muses are much more ambiguous. It is never quite clear whether they represent God, Satan, some other powerful entities, or are simply hallucinatory manifestations of Jaye's warped mind.

And while Joan of Arcadia, with her wholesome life and family, wanders into goody-two-shoes territory more often than not, Wonderfalls has a much more skewed and gently sardonic view of life. Dear cranky Jaye is far from heroic, and would love to stay that way, if only wax lions and monkey bookends would stop bossing her around. And while Joan of Arcadia's plots are generally quite predictable, you are never quite sure where a Wonderfalls storyline will take you, or exactly what Jaye's muses are trying to accomplish.

Do yourself a favor. Buy, or at the very least rent, the Wonderfalls series. If you like romance, the approach-avoidance dance of Jaye and her bartender will keep you hooked. And if love entanglements are too precious for you, there is plenty of very funny, clever writing to keep even the most curmudgeonly viewer quite entertained.

Watching these wonderful Wonderfalls episodes that never aired, it's hard not to feel despair for network television today. TV lore is full of stories about shows like Seinfeld, Hill Street Blues, or the kindred Northern Exposure that struggled to find an audience in their early days. Their networks stuck with the shows, and they eventually found their rhythm and their viewer base. If any of those shows debuted today, they'd be gone in a month.

Don't get me wrong, it's great to have the bittersweet consolation prize of this DVD set of Wonderfalls. But having the show live long and prosper would have been better still.

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