LITTLE ROCK Evening is oddly old-fashioned, a three-hankie weepie that offers the sort of On Golden Pond or The Notebook-style ending "serious" novelists like Michael Cunningham usually eschew. While it's considerably entertaining, it's also a load of prattle.
Cunningham, who adapted Susan Minot's dreamy novel of the same title, likely knows this, but given a free swing he can't resist swooping in and loading up Minot's schemata with some of his preoccupations. The result is that the film's most interesting (and interestingly screwed-up) character, a boozy wannabe writer named Buddy (played with star-making insouciance by Hugh Dancy), barely exists in the book.
Unfortunately he dies a half century before the end of the film, and he's not the lost love on the dying lips of the (also great) Vanessa Redgrave.
Instead, Redgrave wanted Patrick Wilson, way back when she was played by Claire Danes. Wait - I can see you're confused. Let's start at the beginning, which is actually the end.
Redgrave plays dying Ann Lord, who is being tended by her adult daughters Constance (Natasha Richardson) and Nina (Toni Collette). In a narcotic haze, Ann mumbles some unfamiliar names and we flash back to the 1950s, to the unbearably Gatsbyesque Rhode Island seaside manor where her best friend Lila (Mamie Gummer) is about to be bound in matrimony to some dull, suitable sort. Sensible Lila and her boho brother Buddy - who is Ann's best platonic friend back in The City where they go to school - have both loved Harris (Wilson), their maid's songrown into a physician. (If you're thinking that this sounds awfully similar to Ian McEwan's Atonement, stop it - Evening was published almost two years before McEwan's novel.)
Anyway, Lila makes a final pass at Harris on the eve of herwedding just to be sure. He rebuffs her, just as on the wedding night Ann rebuffs (not for the first time) oily Buddy. Who then proceeds to plant one right on the kisser of the hardly surprised Harris, who in what might be a gesture of overcompensation promptly trundles away with Ann. Then something horrible occurs that messes up everyone's life.
Yes, it's a three-ring soap opera. The best part is the cheese, as when Glenn Close cuts loose screaming bloody manslaughter. Later we have Meryl Streep and Redgrave in the same bed! Cunningham didn't need to add Buddy's sexual identity crisis to make this a gay cult classic - it's just the cherry on the top.
Lost amid all this fuss and finery (Did I mention the period clothes? And we thought the 1950s was all about gray flannel) some fine acting more or less gets lost. Collette and Richardson, Danes and Gummer, Richardson and Streep all have some fine woman-to-woman moments, with Wilson good-naturedly handling a part so underwritten it could have been played by a cardboard cut-outof Alex Rodriguez.
The movie's insane but kind of fun. Especially if you don't get committed to it. Like Harris, it's good enough for a wild evening. Just don't ask too many questions.
MovieStyle, Pages 45, 52 on 06/29/2007