Published Dec 01, 2002Someone really should have informed writer-director Rebecca Miller that she was about to break the cardinal rule of book-to-movie adaptation, and screenwriting in general, before she made this film: show, don't tell. But no one did, apparently, and the result is Personal Velocity, a clunky, voice-over heavy film version of her own novel, where her female characters' inner conflicts and motives are tiresomely explained to the audience via an omniscient male narrator. It makes sense that the daughter of legendary playwright Arthur Miller would be enraptured by the spoken word, but someone so steeped in dramatic tradition should be aware that movies (much more so than plays) rely on actions to make their point. Maybe I'm just bitter because she gets to sleep with her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis, and I'm stuck reviewing her boring, pretentious movie.
The film is a triptych of stories about three women from different points of the class spectrum. Delia Shunt (Kyra Sedgewick) is a poor mother of three from Catskill, New York, married to her abusive high school sweetheart. Delia, we are told, was incredibly promiscuous when she was a teenager ("Shunt rhymes with cunt"), and always enjoyed the power that came with her apparently formidable sexuality and "ripe ass." After a particularly brutal beating, Delia makes the difficult decision to flee her home, and ends up living in the garage of the former high school joke Fat Faye, whom she dislikes, while waiting tables at the local greasy spoon. Delia may appear as tough as the diner's day-old meatloaf, but, wouldn't you know, she feels scared and alone on the inside.
A few hundred miles and several light years away in Manhattan, Greta Herskovitz (Parker Posey) edits cookbooks for a living, but is desperate to land a real gig in publishing. She is married to a kind yet hopelessly mediocre fact checker, and has dreams of telling her boss (an underused Wallace Shawn) to take his rice pudding and "shove it up his ass." When she fortuitously lands the job of editing the latest novel of one of the hottest literary properties in New York, she celebrates by buying a pair of Manolo Blahniks and letting the author grope her during their editing sessions. After realising how much more successful she has become than her loving husband, she forlornly decides she must "dump him like a superfluous paragraph."
Finally, in a sudden and welcome shift of tone and interest, we are introduced to Paula (Fairuza Balk), an aimless club kid from a lower-middle class family who has just found out she is pregnant, as she picks up a young hitchhiker in her station wagon. After she is involved in an accident where a man she had just met is instantly killed, Paula drives without direction (but is unconsciously heading to her mother's home in upstate New York). She soon discovers that the young boy she has picked up has been beaten to the point of torture, and, racked with horror and convinced all the recent events in her life are signs, she makes it her mission to save him.
Paula's accident holds all three stories together in a tremendously tenuous fashion; both Delia and Greta simply watch it on the news. Other than that, there really is no cohesion to the stories. Like most ideas in this movie, the thematic thread of the relationship between fathers and daughters is never explored thoroughly. Female sexuality and self-determination are flirted with, but never in a satisfying way. I can't think of a bigger cliché than the tough-talking waitress who uses sex to mask her vulnerability, and Molly Parker and Bruce Sweeney realise Posey's character with more complexity in Last Wedding.
The images, shot on digital video, are sometimes powerful and poetic, but more often just seem murky or overexposed. The one pleasant surprise in Personal Velocity is the often-deft humour (I especially like the portrait of Delia's father, Pete Shunt, who innocently invites in door-to-door evangelists only to punch one of them in the face.) But, oh, that voice over! It leaves big black skid marks over the whole film, and is especially awkward during Posey's story, when it duels with Greta's own inner monologue. Day-Lewis should definitely buy Miller a ticket to see Spike Jonze's new film, Adaptation, when it's released in December, so she can watch Nicholas Cage (as writer Charlie Kaufman) struggle to turn a best-selling book into a worthy screenplay. Maybe then she'll realise it's not as easy as it looks.