A Sad Fate

It would be hard to overstate the ineptitude of Steve Martin's new film, A Simple Twist of Fate, so I won't try. The poor, misshapen thing speaks for itself.

Get this: Martin had the unlikely idea of remaking Silas Marner. He wrote the screenplay and was executive producer on the project, so the final result feels like a vanity production. Only a real star could have gotten something this sickly made and actually released.

Not that it begins badly. We meet Martin in the mid-'70s as Mike McCann, a junior high school choir teacher. He's leading his kids through a rehearsal when his very pregnant wife arrives at the school. McCann thinks she's going to tell him the gender of their soon-to-be-born child; instead, she reveals that he isn't the baby's biological father.

So the movie starts out as something of an inverted fairy tale, one in which a parent is confused about ancestry rather than a child. Not bad, though director Gillies MacKinnon filmed the scene without much verve. Afterward, the fairy-tale elements really kick in, or at least try to. The broken McCann becomes a recluse and a miser. He's brought back to life only when a baby wanders into his house and he decides that fate has sent her to him.

The baby grows up to be his Mathilda (Alana Austin), and it's when Martin and MacKinnon try to graft her story, and business about her tortured parentage, onto the original tale that everything falls apart. Her mother was a heroin addict; her father, John Newland (Gabriel Byrne), is a rich guy running for some unspecified political position who feels he can't acknowledge his illicit child, and so lets McCann adopt her when the time comes.

This mix of politics and would-be fantasy never takes. Much worse, however, is that Martin and company become sloppy in their storytelling. Characters who scarcely know each other in one scene are fast friends in another; McCann is given a big balloon to play with, and strains for magical effects as he bounces around the countryside in it, then the device is completely abandoned.

And the filmmakers can't make up their minds about the Gabriel Byrne character. Even when he decides to reclaim his child, and break poor McCann's heart again in the process, he seems like a basically decent guy who only does wicked things. In a truly adult, complex film, that might be of interest, but here it just feels indecisive.

Because Newland isn't such a bad guy, the courtroom scene in which Mathilda is fought over has no tension. Martin seems to sense the movie's problems, as he begins performing a variation on his old "Wild and Crazy Guy" bit just so he'll have something to do.

That A Simple Twist of Fate arrived almost unannounced, Steve Martin and all, should have been the tip-off. I saw it anyway; don't let the same happen to you.

-- David Theis

A Simple Twist of Fate.
Directed by Gillies MacKinnon. With Steve Martin, Gabriel Byrne, Catherine O'Hara and Alana Austin.

Rated PG-13.
106 minutes.


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