Eleven months after winning the screenplay and audience awards at this year's Sundance Film Festival, writer-director James C. Strouse's Grace Is Gone has received a musical makeover care of Clint Eastwood, who reportedly screened the film and thought that it could do with a new original score, which he offered to compose himself. The music — a gently jazzy piano-and-strings theme — is just fine, and a good deal less cloying than what was there before. As for the movie itself, one can only regret that Eastwood didn't offer to reshoot the whole thing while he was at it.
The "Grace" of Strouse's title is a career Marine who's gone off to fight the evildoers in Iraq, leaving her husband Stanley (John Cusack) behind to care for their two young daughters, 12-year-old Heidi (Shélan O'Keefe) and eight-year-old Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk). The film's early moments show us life as it continues on the home front, somewhere in the suburban flatlands of Minnesota. Stanley tests the waters of a support group for soldiers' spouses (he's the only man in the room); Heidi — the quiet, soul-searching kid — steals forbidden peeks at the latest images from Baghdad on the evening news; and Dawn — the boisterous, doll-faced kid — pauses for nightly moments of silence at the chime of her synchronized watch. Then two men in uniform show up at the door, regretting to inform Stanley that Grace is now gone for good. At which point, Stanley does what I suppose Strouse thinks any like-minded parent would do: Instead of sitting his girls down for a sober heart-to-heart, he piles everyone into the car and sets off on an impromptu trip to Disney World. Well, not Disney exactly, but a fictional Central Florida happy place called Enchanted Gardens, which, when they finally get there, looks neither particularly enchanting nor lush.
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First, though, there's a pit stop to visit Stanley's parents, whereupon we also find Stanley's layabout kid brother, John (Alessandro Nivola), who functions as the movie's voice of blue-state America — so indicated by his scruffy beard, lack of gainful employment at age 32 and habit of referring to President Bush as "monkey boy." "How do these girls feel about the fact that their mother is halfway across the world fighting in an unjust oil war?" he asks Stanley. "They think their mother is a hero who's helping to uphold the precious freedoms that allow you to have your traitorous, pinko opinions," Stanley replies. I'm paraphrasing there, but you get the idea. The level of dialectical discourse rarely rises above that, but discourse isn't really part of Strouse's game plan. Like this season's other drama about a family coping with the death of an Iraq enlistee, Paul Haggis's In the Valley of Elah, Grace Is Gone wants to massage liberal sensibilities about the war without alienating the churchgoing, Wal-Mart-shopping Middle Americans who might see, in Stanley Phillips, a reflection of themselves.
All the while, Stanley keeps up his morbid shell game in the least convincing of ways, leaving voice-mails for Grace on the home answering machine and abruptly changing the subject whenever Heidi — ostensibly the brighter child — asks something to the effect of, "Dad, how come we're playing hooky from school in the middle of the year just so we can go to some dumb theme park?" Some champions of Grace Is Gone have suggested that none of this is meant to be taken literally and is instead Strouse's canny metaphor for Americans' unwillingness to acknowledge the full toll of the second Gulf War. But rather than challenging our national aversion to unhappy endings, both in life and in cinema, Strouse plays right into it: He's devised Grace Is Gone to work on our sentiments the way a porn movie works on our libidos, only he delays the money shot with 80-odd minutes of emotional foreplay en route to the inevitable, orgiastic climax where Stanley finally spills the beans and the girls spill forth the entire contents of their tear ducts. If not a happy ending per se, it's a horribly contrived bit of catharsis, and as if to underline the crassness of his instincts, Strouse drowns out the dialogue of that crucial scene with music — a reminder that, as in all pornography, talk is expendable.
Grace Is Gone
And yet Grace Is Gone gets to people — even some perfectly rational, intelligent festival jury members and critics. One friend and colleague went so far as to huff "Asshole!" in my direction upon overhearing me express my displeasure after the film's Sundance press screening. Admittedly, he is himself a father of two and I'm not, but such defenses have always struck me as labored where movies are concerned. Certainly, you don't have to have kids to feel moved by the circumstances faced by the parents in movies like Stella Dallas, Bicycle Thieves and last year's superb, underrated The Pursuit of Happyness any more than you have to be an ascetic to emerge devastated from Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest.
There's no denying that Strouse is a better manipulator than he is a filmmaker. Low-budget or not, you will find few movies this year more poorly photographed and edited than this one, while the performances of the two child actresses rank among the camera-mugging extremes of television sitcoms and cereal commercials. Cusack, who also helped to produce the film, mugs for the camera in a different way, burying himself under layers of camouflage — bad comb-over hairdo, gut spilling over his waistline, rumpled Members Only jacket — in the time-honored fashion of actors who feel they haven't been taken seriously enough. (Think Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man or Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys.) His Stanley is supposed to be a former soldier himself, so eager to enlist that he cheated his way through an eye exam, yet there's not one atom of this man's potato-sack posture and dishwater demeanor to suggest that he would have passed muster as a cub scout. What old Grace saw in him, we'll never know.