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'Off the Map': Treasure It

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 11, 2005; Page WE33

"OFF THE MAP" doesn't just glow because of New Mexico's achingly gorgeous sunsets. There's a collective scintillation about its rich, distinctive characters, narrative serendipity and ineffable magic. Watching this, you're hard-pressed to think of life as anything but an existential go-round of whimsical circumstance, breathtaking vistas and eternal good luck.

Perhaps it's best to enter the story (which Joan Ackermann adapted from her play) the way William Gibbs does. The eccentric IRS agent (played by a wonderfully bumbling Jim True-Frost) has been dispatched to collect back taxes from the Grodens, who live somewhere in the New Mexico desert. It takes him four days to find their place. But when he does, it's the discovery of a lifetime: a house full of unforgettable souls living without a telephone, plumbing or money. And yet, they lack for nothing. They are living, it seems, on life itself.

In "Off the Map," Joan Allen stars as Arlene, a woman who lives in the New Mexico desert with her family. (Campbell Scott)

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William's first image is that of Arlene (Joan Allen), an oddly alluring woman at work in her garden. At that moment she is gazing rapturously at a coyote that is standing completely still. She's also wearing no clothes. William is stunned -- and stung, too. Intensely allergic to bee stings, he's forced to recuperate in the house of the people he intends to take money from. And when he emerges from a fever dream of several days, he realizes he's done with Uncle Sam, and he's in love with everything: this land, this woman and her family, including her husband Charley (Sam Elliott), and precocious 12-year-old daughter Bo (Valentina de Angelis).

"Mr. Gibbs," Arlene informs him without a trace of over-romanticism in her tone, "New Mexico is a very powerful place."

While William comes to terms with his newfound consciousness, the family is busy weathering its own in-house contretemps. Charley has become clinically depressed. He stares gloomily into the middle distance for hours. And without warning, he frequently breaks into tears. It has been a long time. Too long. So Arlene prevails on Charley's loner friend George (J.K. Simmons) to finagle antidepressants from his psychiatrist. The deed is finally done. The pills sit in front of Charley. But he doesn't do medicine.

"You'd better take it, Dad," Bo tells her father. "Because if you don't, we're going to stick it in your food."

Will Charley pop those meds and get out of his funk? Does William ever intend to report back to Uncle Sam? Is Bo really going through with her plan to acquire a major credit card and spend, spend, spend? And why does a boat seem to be sailing through New Mexico's dusty landscape?

Actor-turned-director Campbell Scott (he also helmed "Big Night" with Stanley Tucci, a TV production of "Hamlet" and "Final") brings these elements harmonically and entertainingly together. And he reaps the pure best out of his actors. De Angelis is a mischievous charm without being bratty and obnoxious -- a stunning little actress. Allen is her own subtle force, a sort of laid-back shaman priestess of this magic-realism universe. And it's a sensual treat to watch the rugged Simmons and Elliott having so much time on screen. Watching them, together and apart, you may never want to waste your time with A-list "stars" again. This is charisma. This is talent. This is presence. And one scene, in which Charley runs miles and miles to George's house, forces his friend to wrestle and, well, let's save the details, will bring tears to your eyes. To watch "Off the Map" is to enter a lowercase paradise, where the treasures may not be evident at first. All you have to do is squint a little to find them.

OFF THE MAP (PG-13, 111 minutes) -- Contains nudity, obscenity and one impromptu wrestling match. At Loews Cineplex Dupont Circle.

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