Clearly overwrought, director Alan J. Pakula brings us "Orphans," a roller coaster of a play adaptation that apes the carryings-on of the Steppenwolf Theater Company's original production. Not since Shelley Winters sank with the Poseidon have we seen such histrionics.
This oddball drama of male bonding finds two feral orphans -- one a delinquent, the other a recluse -- redeemed by a kidnap victim turned fairy godfather, a dapper mafioso played with welcome restraint by Albert Finney. Matthew Modine and screen newcomer Kevin Anderson, however, scramble and grapple like demented gerbils in performances that may have worked for the Steppenwolves playing to the balcony but that overwhelm on screen. Pakula and company forget the rule of thumb: You don't have to project when using a projector.
Modine, of "Full Metal Jacket" fame, plays Treat, a self-styled Robin Hood who steals to feed his kid brother Phillip, who cowers in their filthy Newark home. It's a dilapidated clapboard on the edge of New York -- and therefore, one guesses, civilization. Treat has convinced Phillip that he will die of an allergic reaction if he goes outdoors. (I'm not so sure he's wrong.) It's a frail variant of "Lord of the Flies," more on the importance of parenting.
Here, Finney's well-heeled gangster, Harold, becomes a father to the boys. "This is the best thing that ever happened to me in New Jersey," says Harold when he magically escapes his bonds. On the lam and an orphan himself, he decides to move in and play a gothic "Father Knows Best." He tames the kids with a tough-but-tender approach; Phillip goes outside and Treat gains self-discipline.
Playwright Lyle Kessler, who reworked "Orphans" for the screen, writes for the actors, not the audience. His story, a claustrophobic parenting parable, goes nowhere, but it features three actorly parts -- like ham cans waiting to be filled. So we see actors instead of characters, technique instead of truth, and performance instead of psychic progress.
Finney, in his second orphan movie ("Annie" being the first), is the exception with his amusing and mythic Harold. He's as impish as George Burns in "Oh, God!" and yet as menacingly moral as Robert De Niro's devil in "Angel Heart." Modine, muggy and moody, swaggers like a saddle-sore cowboy after an all-night rodeo. Anderson re-creates his stage role as the skittery Phillip, whose fantasy life teems with other selves. He hasn't made a successful transition, with his work wobbling somewhere between staginess and comedy-club improv.
The whole production is like an actor's workshop, where students pretend to be amoebas and egg beaters. Despite all his accomplishment, Pakula seems duped by the theatricality of the project; he's proved he can handle grand emotion with "Sophie's Choice," but somehow awed by the Steppenwolves, he unfortunately adopted their version of "Orphans."
Orphans, at area theaters, is rated R for language.