Living on edge, for no reason
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, April 8, 2011
Coming off the almost magical, Sundance award-winning “Judy Berlin,” filmmaker Eric Mendelsohn’s latest movie is a huge disappointment. Like that 1999 black-and-white gem, which was set during a day leading up to a solar eclipse “3 Backyards” also takes place during the course of a single, strange day in the suburbs, and once again it stars the wonderful Edie Falco, a college friend of Mendelsohn’s.
She is not enough to save the movie from itself.
It has become fashionable in the art-house world to make movies about how the seemingly unconnected lives of random individuals touch one another. Think “Crash,” “Babel” and a host of imitators. And at first, “3 Backyards” seems like it is going to follow suit, introducing us to three strangers.
There’s Peggy (Falco), a housewife who agrees to give a lift to a troubled movie star (Embeth Davitz) who’s renting a house in her neighborhood. There’s John (Elias Koteas), a man who has just had a fight with his wife (Kathryn Erbe) and whose business flight out of town is about to be canceled. Then there’s Christina (Rachel Resheff), a little girl who, while running to school after missing her bus, loses a bracelet in the back yard of a creepy dude (Wesley Broulik) who seems to be doing things he shouldn’t be doing in the garden shed.
There’s an ominous tone throughout, heightened by an increasing urgent and intrusive flute-and-harp score by Michael Nicholas that would be more appropriate in a horror movie. You keep expecting a car crash, or some calamity, as Peggy drives her inexplicably weepy neighbor to the ferry, or as John drives aimlessly around town, returning at one point to spy on his wife and daughter from his own back yard, then almost stalking a young woman (Danai Gurira) he runs into at a diner. When Christina returns to the creepy guy’s back yard to retrieve her bracelet, the tension is almost unbearable, and not in a good way.
It is both fortunate and unfortunate that nothing really terrible ever happens.
Oh, there is a confrontation or two — and, yes, a car crash — but the players in this oddly enervated drama simply pick up the pieces and move on. What’s worse, neither Peggy nor John nor Christina ever cross paths with one another, leading to the question: What’s the point?
The title suggests an answer. On a literal level, back yards do not play a pivotal role in the story (with the possible exception of the one where Christina faces off with someone who may or may not be a sexual predator — or something just as bad). On a metaphorical level however, Mendelsohn seems to be suggesting that the movie is about how we all hide dark secrets behind facades of normalcy. In fact, the movie opens with shots of birds singing in sunlit trees, intercut with shots of a stalking housecat and a sinister spider web.
From those early moments on, the movie keeps promising a bang, but all “3 Backyards” ever delivers is a whimper.
Contains a few obscenities and brief, sexually suggestive material.