Isabel (Michelle Williams) runs an orphanage for poor children in India. She is obviously very loving and committed and does yoga with the kids, but there’s still something of the white saviour about her. She also has a problem. The charity donations that the orphanage receives are often incomplete and they’re not really receiving enough to survive. Then they hear of a potential rich donor, but any money is dependent on Michelle travelling to New York to meet the donor.
Theresa (Julianne Moore) is a potential rich donor. She’s a businesswoman who’s whole understanding of life revolves around money. When she makes a successful transaction she tells the world how much money she’s made. When she makes a charitable donation she says how much money she’s lost. At her birthday, she has a gopher tell everyone that she’s just sold her company because she wants to make things more difficult for herself. Things are never difficult for Theresa.
Isabel arrives in New York and is put up in a plush hotel. Theresa can’t see her yet, so why doesn’t she come to Theresa’s daughter’s wedding. The wedding is as extravagant as you’d expect and its there that Isabel realises that she knows Theresa’s husband. She goes over and demands to speak to him, but the big firework display is about to start, and he’ll ring her tomorrow.
There follows a plot that is too melodramatic and ridiculous to be explained by innuendo, so warning, from here onwards, there be plot spoilers. If its any help, you’ll thank me for them. Once you’ve read through what happens, you won’t want to bother with the film.
It turns out that Theresa’s husband Oscar (Billy Crudup), a rugged sculptor, is Isabel’s former partner. Not only that, Theresa’s daughter Grace is the baby that Oscar and Isabel had given up for adoption. Only in the 30 day period of (ahem) grace, Oscar changed his mind and took her back. But Isabel had already pissed off to India by then.
There follows a number of scenes of hand wringing and mutual retributions which in another context may have been an intelligent exploration of the responsibilities of biological and adoptive parents or of different theories of nature and nurture. Set against this opulent background, it comes across as a group of entitled rich people moaning on about their First World Problems.
The self-importance doesn’t help when it comes to the next Great Problem. Theresa has an incurable disease. I’m not sure whether its mentioned by name, but you can bet its cancer. In her final months she uses her money to manipulate Isabel into taking on her duties as mother and wife. She promises 10 times as much money to Isabel’s hospital, but only on the condition that Isabel stays in New York.
This all leads up to a scene where Julianne Moore does her best to extract her sympathy in the face of her imminent death. There are, however, a couple of problems. Its not just that so far she has been such a materialist who is used to buying her way out of any slightly difficult situation that you struggle to feel too much sympathy. It is also that as all these characters are so obviously constructs to make some vague argument, its difficult to mourn the passing of a clearly fictional stereotype.
Since Blue Valentine, I can’t see Michelle Williams on screen without thinking of her tap dancing while Ryan Gosling plays ukelele and sings “You always hurt the one you love”. There is as much genuine raw emotion in that one scene than in this two hour example of how good actors deal with a script that really isn’t good enough. Although, compared to Moore’s over-emoting, Williams’s tranquility acquits her much better from this smugfest.
I’m sure that the makers of this film have Important Points to make. And maybe the Danish original managed to make them without seeming quite so self-satisfied. For the sake of balance, there is one good line. Isabel says to Oscar “I saw your work online and couldn’t believe how bad they are”. Now that’s one for the film poster.