‘Sherrybaby’ falls short of a satisfying movie
November 24, 2006
The cinema has witnessed recently some noteworthy instances of actors transforming themselves – voices, body shape and even size – to portray a character. When radical enough, it can even be deemed Oscar-worthy: the slim beauty Charlize Theron put on pounds and shed her pulchritude to play a man-killing sociopath in “Monster.” Bulky Philip Seymour Hoffman raised his vocal pitch, and somehow gave the illusion of losing considerable inches in height, to squeeze into the character of Truman Capote in last year’s “Capote.” Both earned Academy Awards for their stretching.
Maggie Gyllenhaal is edging close to my list of must-see actresses. She has been in mostly good films, and her range of choices – the mainstream “World Trade Center,” the independent “Criminal,” the daring “Secretary,” the offbeat “Adaptation” – shows a wide-open embrace of cinematic possibilities. She has also shown different faces onscreen, ranging from submissive to willful, and there is sensuality to most of her roles that defies the obvious. She’s always good, and usually excellent.Gyllenhaal, 29, the older sister of Jake Gyllenhaal, is in contention for an Oscar nomination – it would be her first – for her starring role in “Sherrybaby.” The character of Sherry Swanson calls for a radical transformation from the sweet-faced Gyllenhaal. Swanson has just been released from prison and deposited onto the rough streets of Newark, N.J. She is determined to turn her life around, at least as regards 5-year-old Alexis, the daughter she never got to know, but drugs and alcohol tempt her, and provide the easiest escape from her maternal failings and frustrations.Gyllenhaal doesn’t quite pull it off, not well enough to make “Sherrybaby” a satisfying movie. Her Sherry dresses sleazy, the better to seduce the men – the overseer of her halfway house, a potential employer – who might stand in her way. She curses and rages with appropriate volume and intensity. But it may be that the actress just doesn’t have this character in her. Gyllenhaal’s body is too healthy looking, her skin too glowing to reveal Sherry’s truth. In one scene, after Sherry has fallen hard off the wagon, there appears on her arm the telltale bruise of heroin mainlining. It looks fake and out of place. In another scene Sherry is sleeping, clothed and wretched, on the doorstep of her brother (Brad William Henke), who has taken in Alexis during Sherry’s absence. Seconds later, Sherry is inside and awake, with no apparent consequences from her night out.
Some of this visual shortcoming is due to the cinematography. “Sherrybaby,” the feature film debut by writer/director Laurie Collyer, is shot in the bright, airy style that shouts “video,” and it is a poor choice for this story, which calls for the graininess and darkness of film. “Sherrybaby” fails on the emotional side as well. Sherry is in a situation rich with internal struggle. She badly wants to become a proper mother. But the obstacles are many: her sister-in-law (Bridget Barkan), who has developed her own bond with Alexis; the logistics of probation, which leave little time or energy for anything beyond survival; and the lures of drugs and cheap sex, Sherry’s reliable escape valves. But “Sherrybaby” shows all of this on the surface, leaning too heavily on plot devices – enough plot devices to make you plotz – and not enough on character examination.It is probably unfair to lay too much of this at Gyllenhaal’s feet. Her performance is at least competent. But she isn’t given much help here. The lesson might be that convincing character transformations require effort from more than just the actor.
“Sherrybaby” shows Monday, Nov. 27, and Wednesday and Thursday, Nov. 29-30, at the Wheeler Opera House.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org