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‘Signs of Life’ (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 12, 1989

"Signs of Life," set on the Maine coastline, on the last day in the existence of a boatyard that has been in operation for more than a century, is achingly literary -- almost to the point of growing margins.

The movie, which John Coles directed from a Mark Malone script, sets a handful of stories in motion. Owen Coughlin, who owns the yard, begins his last workday with a visit from the Ghost of his Dead Father, played by Will Patton, who wears a hat and has a slightly menacing, slightly sarcastic manner. The message the old man takes from his spectral Pa (who doesn't speak) is that he must fight to keep his yard open. No one believes this is possible, though, especially not his foreman John (Beau Bridges), whose wife (Kathy Bates) chooses this particular morning to go into labor.

Panicked by the possibility of financial ruin, John cleans out the cash register at his brother-in-law's hardware store, then lies out on a rock, crying over his fate, while the wad of money, spread out on his chest, is lifted into the wind. For the rest of the film he stares blankly into space.

Coles dips in and out of his stories like a soap opera director. While Coughlin is musing with his demons and John is chasing dollar bills, two of the old man's workmen, Daryl (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Eddie (Kevin O'Connor), tidy up their lives in order to become salvage divers in Florida. For Eddie, a burly mass of flannel and brown hair, this means breaking up with his girl, Charlotte (Mary Louise Parker). For Daryl, it means finding a suitable home for his mentally retarded younger brother, Joey (Michael Lewis).

"Signs of Life" is about the nature of progress and the passing of old values, but neither its smaller details nor its larger themes register with any resonance. Mostly, it elaborates on its symbols -- the innocent idiot, the figure of death, the simple, wooden boat -- all of which seem to have been lifted from long-retired theater pieces. Old man Coughlin is played by Arthur Kennedy, who came out of retirement to take the role, and at 75, he is marginally more convincing than he was as a younger actor. The other performers are passable without being exciting. And remarkably, death figure or no death figure, hat or no hat, nobody dies. How's that for a red herring?

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