[Screen It]

(2001) (Jordana Brewster, Christopher Eccleston) (R)

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Drama: A young woman sets out to retrace her older sister's trip several years earlier through Europe, hoping to discover why she committed suicide while there.
It's 1977 and Phoebe O'Connor (JORDANA BREWSTER), a recent high school graduate, lives in San Francisco with her mother, Gail (BLYTHE DANNER). Things are quieter in their home than in the past when Phoebe's father, Gene (PATRICK BERGIN), and older sister, Faith (CAMERON DIAZ), were still alive. It's been nine years since Gene died of leukemia, and six since Faith killed herself while in Portugal.

Feeling disconnected with the rest of the world and still obsessed with her sister and her death, Phoebe decides to follow Faith's path through Europe. Using her many old postcards as guides about her various thoughts and locations, Phoebe travels from Amsterdam to France where she runs into her sister's old boyfriend, Wolf (CHRISTOPHER ECCLESTON). No longer a hippie radical, Wolf is now engaged to a Frenchwoman, Claire (ISABELLE PASCO), and has tried to put his relationship with Faith behind him.

Nevertheless, Phoebe's presence and questions dredge up old memories and feelings. As Wolf eventually joins Phoebe as she continues on her quest, the young woman eventually pieces together the events that led to her sister's suicide and learns a thing or two about herself and life.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Losing a loved one, friend or relative is always an emotionally trying time no matter whether the death is sudden or comes after a prolonged illness. When it comes as the result of suicide, however, it's doubly devastating as those who survive the deceased wonder if they could have stopped the event or at least should have seen the signs of it coming. For those times when it seem to come out of the blue, close friends and family members are often racked with guilt and curiosity about what might have driven the person to such drastic measures.

That's the thrust behind writer/director Adam Brooks' sophomore theatrical outing, "The Invisible Circus." A tale of a young woman who traces her older sister's footsteps through Europe six years after her suicide - hoping to discover the reasons, details and possible secrets behind the act - this is a somewhat absorbing drama that benefits from some solid performances from its cast, yet suffers from a surprisingly weak plot that occasionally goes off on increasingly incredulous tangents.

Comprised of a modified "road trip" story, the film hopes to use the mystery behind the suicide and what the protagonist may uncover to drive its plot and keep the viewer engaged in the proceedings. While that works - at least to some degree - those expecting some shocking grand finale twist and/or revelation are apt to be disappointed by what transpires here.

That's not to say that all of what develops is boring, unbelievable or dramatically unsound - although the developments do sort of pile on near the end with some getting a bit farfetched - but that it's something of a letdown after we're led along expecting something more than what's ultimately delivered.

Of course, this is the sort of film that presumably follows the old saying of the trip in progress being more important than the ultimate destination. While nothing particularly spectacular or amazing occurs during the protagonist's travels and overall quest, what does transpire is present to elicit character growth rather than further plot developments. As such, the protagonist not only eventually learns the truth about her sister, but also a thing or two about herself and life in the process.

In that role, relative newcomer Jordana Brewster ("The Faculty") delivers a compelling performance and easily holds her own with her more seasoned, veteran costars. Bearing a striking resemblance to a young Jennifer Connelly, Brewster does a fine job portraying this late blooming, coming of age character. While some of her acting requirements are fulfilled by some mostly unnecessary, but thankfully not too obtrusive bits of voice over narration, this is the sort of performance that's apt to bring the young actress some deserved attention and more prominent, future roles.

Christopher Eccleston ("Elizabeth," "Jude") delivers a solid performance as the boyfriend of the deceased who obviously knows more than he initially admits. Reminiscent of those Fiennes brothers - Ralph and Joseph - in both looks and broody appeal - Eccleston is one of those actors who can manage to deliver a lot with a seemingly minimal amount of verbal or physical effort.

Quite prominently on display for a person playing a long-dead character and taking another stab at straight drama after all of those lovably goofy roles, Cameron Diaz ("Any Given Sunday," "Charlie's Angels") delivers an interesting performance as the would-be suicide victim. Yet, she can't overcome a character that's never fully explored to any satisfying extent or the somewhat ridiculous lengths the story goes to in explaining why her character would take her own life.

Unfortunately, Brooks (director of "Almost You," writer of "Beloved" and "Practical Magic") - in adapting Jennifer Egan's novel - lets the story get out of control toward the end and doesn't manage to make things as intriguing or interesting as they could have been in any or all of the points leading up to that. While the performances and general, underlying plot will keep viewers moderately glued for a while, the slow pace, lack of tension - romantic or dramatic - and increasingly preposterous developments will have many viewers seeing through this film long before it draws to a slow and laborious close. As such, "The Invisible Circus" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed January 22, 2001 / Posted February 9, 2001

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