[Screen It]

(2007) (Halle Berry, Benicio Del Toro) (R)

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Drama: A widow tries to come to grips with her husband's recent murder, all while taking in his best friend, a heroin addict, to keep her company.
Life was once good for Audrey Burke (HALLE BERRY). While she and her husband, Brian (DAVID DUCHOVNY), had their share of ups and downs, they seemed to be the perfect couple, with two adorable kids, 10-year-old Harper (ALEXIS LLEWELLYN) and her 6-year-old brother Dory (MICAH BERRY).

Then one day, while out getting ice cream, Brian tried to stop some domestic abuse but ended up being murdered. Grief stricken, Audrey leans heavily on her brother Neal (OMAR BENSON MILLER) and neighbors such as Howard Glassman (JOHN CARROLL LYNCH) for support, all while trying to keep it together for her kids.

However, she ends up turning to an unlikely source for comfort, Brian's childhood friend Jerry Sunborne (BENICIO DEL TORO). A former lawyer, he's now a recovering heroin addict, and for years she hated him for what he had become as well as Brian's insistence of remaining friends with that man.

Perhaps vicariously wanting to have some contact one last time with her husband and/or feeling the need to help someone else, Audrey offers to allow Jerry to stay in her garage apartment so that he can get his life back together. And that includes him attending support group meetings with the likes of fellow recovering addict Kelly (ALISON LOHMAN).

From that point on, he and Audrey try to work through their own and each other's issues, all while living together as the unlikeliest of housemates.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Whenever you see victims of a fire on the TV news, the one thing they universally say (at least when the conditions are true) is that while they may have lost some or all of their possessions, at least they escaped with their lives. The point is that belongings are replaceable, unlike a living being, although the loss of personal items such as photos and such are nevertheless often quite traumatic for survivors.

Such fires, however, can occur quite literally (where combustion is involved) or metaphorically, as in being a severe test, trial or torment for someone. The latter is what most constitutes the dramatic material in "Things We Lost in the Fire," a sometimes melodramatic, predictable and over directed flick that has one saving grace.

And that's Benicio Del Toro. Like Tommy Lee Jones and a handful of other performers, this guy can do the old picture says a thousand words thing with just his face, and it's his performance that makes the film viewable. His role, as a junkie who helps save a widow and vice-versa, is the type that actors and actresses seemingly love to play.

After all, the varied effects of such a state (sober, stoned, somewhere in between and the requisite withdrawal montage) allow for a wide variety of thespian opportunities, and Oscar just seems to love these character types when it comes time to hand out those little golden statuettes. It's too early to tell if Del Toro will be the recipient of one, but one can't deny that he delivers a powerhouse performance within the usual parameters of such a character.

Grieving ones, on the other hand, are a bit more difficult to play (at least in terms of making them enjoyable or interesting to watch). That's not only due to the obvious reasons of no one liking to be or see someone in that state, but also because of the one overriding emotion that's both out there on the surface as well as deep down below, wreaking all sorts of inner psyche havoc on the sufferer.

Of course, a good performer in the role can make it work, but Halle Berry isn't the right choice here. Saddled with some awkward dialogue and character motivation by scribe Allan Loeb, she (and the resultant film) might fare a bit better than with some of her previous project choices, but I never bought into her pain and suffering (especially due to some of the stupid stuff that transpires and/or comes out of her character's mouth).

In short, she looks, sounds and feels like an actress playing a grieving widow, rather than becoming just that for viewers. The distinction might not seem like much to some viewers, but it's a fairly significant chasm for everyone else, and one into which Berry occasionally plummets headfirst.

Playing a character who's already dead, David Duchovny shows up just in various flashbacks, and it's with that part of the film that director Susanne Bier falters. Of course, some may also tire of her incessant need to show close-ups of various characters' eyes (yes, we get the window into the soul bit, but such camera shots end up being rather annoying, much like the rest of the drunken sailor camerawork).

Back to the point, the various flashbacks don't work that well simply because they don't really impart anything new or interesting to the "I'll fix you, and you fix me, but let's not admit that to each other" plot thrust that fuels most of the film. Accordingly, those looking for something to come of them will likely be disappointed or irritated by that otherwise unnecessary, nonlinear storytelling structure.

John Carroll Lynch is present as a slight version of comic relief in the form of a compassionate neighbor, while Alison Lohman plays another recovering drug addict and potential love interest for Del Toro's character. Neither amount to that much (particularly regarding Lohman's character), which also holds true for the two young performers playing Berry's kids. They might be cute (what with the near matching mop-top 'dos) and get a few moments to interact with the adults, but that's about it.

All of which means it's really just the junkie and widow story, and how the two burned characters try to make a go at it in terms of surviving their personal fires. And while Del Toro shines brightly in his, Berry both burns and gets burned by her character. "Things We Lost in the Fire" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed September 24, 2007 / Posted October 19, 2007

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