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"THE VIRGIN SUICIDES"
(2000) (Kirsten Dunst, James Woods) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A quintet of 1970s era, teenage sisters react to their parents' restrictive nature in unexpected and shocking ways.
PLOT:
It's the 1970s and 13-year-old Cecilia Lisbon (HANNA R. HALL) has just tried to commit suicide in her parents' suburban home. Neither her mother (KATHLEEN TURNER) nor her father (JAMES WOODS) know what to make of this or how to react, and the same holds true for Dr. Horniker (DANNY DEVITO), her psychiatrist, and Cecilia's sisters, 17-year-old Therese (LESLIE HAYMAN), 16-year-old Mary (A.J. COOK), 15-year-old Bonnie (CHELSE SWAIN) and 14-year-old Lux (KIRSTEN DUNST).

Even so, the Lisbons try to get on with their lives. As such, they decide to throw a party and thus invite some of the neighborhood boys over, including Tim (JONATHAN TUCKER), Chase (ANTHONY DESIMONE) and others who are completely enamored by the blond Lisbon sisters.

Unfortunately, the party doesn't help Cecilia who eventually succeeds at her fatal quest and sends her family reeling. It's not until high school football hunk Trip Fontaine (JOSH HARTNETT) decides he wants to ask Lux to the prom -- mainly because she's the epitome of forbidden fruit to him -- that the family finally breaks out of their funk.

Another unexpected turn of events, however, soon has Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon tightening their overprotective reigns over their daughters to an even greater degree. As the near isolation and restrictive environment takes its toll on the sisters, they react in ways that will leave a lasting impression on the boys so taken with them.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Following in the footsteps of one's parent(s), relatives or even siblings is often a difficult enough endeavor in any given occupational field, but doing so in the world of moviemaking can be even more intimidating and challenging. Not only is one measured up the success of their blood relatives, but others' jealous charges of nepotism, other favoritism, and perhaps a few more "isms" usually haunt the follower's early efforts, at least until they prove themselves.

Among those who've overcome such obstacles (which obviously don't equal those faced by anonymous hopefuls) are Liza Minnelli (daughter of Judy Garland and director father Vincente), Jeff and Beau Bridges (sons of Lloyd), Michael Douglas (Kirk's son), Angelica Huston (daughter of legendary director John) and the Arquette and Baldwin siblings who seem to debut so often that you begin to imagine there's an ACME assembling line pumping them out like the latest anvils ready to drop on the heads of unsuspecting viewers.

While all of them eventually had to make it on their own, few family members have received as cold a welcome as Sofia Coppola, daughter of legendary film director Francis Ford Coppola. Although she had appeared in various bit parts in some of her father's films and penned one installment of the 1989 picture, "New York Stories," her most major role was as Mary Corleone in her dad's third installment of the "Godfather" trilogy. It was a performance panned by nearly everyone and resulted in that being her first and last prominent role.

Like Phoenix rising up from the ashes, however, Sofia has resurfaced, this time as the writer and director of "The Virgin Suicides." Safely ensconced behind the camera, Coppola has adapted Jeffrey Eugenides' acclaimed 1993 novel of the same name and turned it into an intriguing, if not entirely satisfactory film.

Sort of a "Wonder Years" gone bad, the story - as narrated in hindsight by Giovanni Ribisi as one of the characters who's now grown up (in a Kevin Arnold/Daniel Stern type fashion) - is a tale of suburban teen angst during the 1970s. A time of liberation stemming from the radical '60s, the era was ideal for generating disillusioned and/or depressed teens still constrained by their conservative parents.

Of course, this film isn't a serious or probing look at such angst or the occasional, related suicide (such as was the case with "Ordinary People" from the tale end of that era) and never delves into the reasons behind such actions beyond the superficial stereotypes.

Instead, it's more of a dark fable where strains of comedy are interspersed with the more serious material. It's also an example of style and appearance overriding more substantial substance. That's not to say that the picture is bereft of theme, meaning or even a moderately intriguing story (all of which it has). Yet, Coppola seems so intent on getting the look and feel of the period just right (which she does) and giving the film a polished and professional veneer that the story can't claw its way to the top and receive the attention it deserves and needs.

As a result, and notwithstanding some decent individual moments, the film comes off as something of a superficial examination of the topic at hand, with a few instances of all too obvious symbolism (the cutting down of sick but outwardly healthy looking trees) standing in for more substantive material.

That aside, in addition to her successful technical efforts, Coppola elicits good performances from her major cast members. As the teens' parents, James Woods ("Play it to the Bone," "The General's Daughter") and Kathleen Turner ("Baby Geniuses," "The War of the Roses") manage to transcend their stereotypical trappings of being ultra conservative parents, and create decent portrayals of these flawed individuals whose protective instincts have warped their view of the real world.

With Hanna R. Hall ("Forrest Gump"), Chelse Swain (making her debut), A.J. Cook (TV's "Higher Ground"), and Leslie Hayman (also making her debut) mostly mesh together as a near indistinguishable sisterly unit, the story obviously then focuses on the character played by Kirsten Dunst ("Dick," "Drop Dead Gorgeous"). The flirt of the bunch, Lux understandably rebels against her parents and Dunst does a good job of portraying the character.

As far as the boys who are interested in the teen sisters are concerned, only Josh Hartnett ("Here on Earth," "The Faculty") stands out as the one who finally breaks through the family's protective shell only to cause it to be replaced by a more impenetrable one that suffocates the sisters and forces them into acts of desperation. The rest of the young male performers either blend together or disappear from the film for long stretches of time. Other supporting performances from the likes of Danny DeVito ("Drowning Mona," "Man on the Moon") and Scott Glenn ("Firestorm," "Absolute Power") are fleeting at best and little more than truncated cameo appearances.

It's unfortunate that the film doesn't do more than skim the surface when something closer to full immersion is necessary and more appropriate for a story like this. Overall, the film is nonetheless somewhat mesmerizing to watch, although that has more to do with the way Coppola has assembled her picture rather than its story. Although not great, this effort should at least clear Coppola's former miscue and have her on her way to a successful filmmaking career, famous father or not. "The Virgin Suicides" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed March 9, 2000 / Posted May 5, 2000


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