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What, essentially, are they key elements in a soap opera? Attractive, rich white people with lots of problems brought on by their own disloyalty, restlessness and/or lasciviousness. What, essentially, is depicted in "Lantana," a new cinematic import from Australia? Attractive, rich white people with lots of problems brought on by their own disloyalty, restlessness and/or lasciviousness. It's true that writer Andrew Bovell, who adapted the screenplay from his own play, and director Ray Lawrence add a few things that normally don't make it onto the sudsy screen, like acting and atmosphere. But ultimately, this film's success hinges on exactly how sympathetic you are to the above-mentioned subspecies of troubled white people. Or, alternately, how much you like to watch them founder in their troubles.

The lantana bush is apparently well known in Australia as a thorny tangle that disguises its danger with radiant green leaves and airy blossoms, so much so that no one actually identifies anything as a lantana bush anywhere in the film. Similarly, the well-to-do, good-looking Anglo folk in this film have their own private briar patches, as we see when this film opens with a dead body and, in a separate location, extramarital sex. It eventually falls to Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia), one of the extramaritalists, to investigate the dead body; after all, he does work as a police detective when he is not trying mightily to avoid communicating or having fun with his vivacious yet troubled wife, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong).

During his investigation, he comes into contact with three other married couples. Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey) and John Knox (Geoffrey Rush) have become distant since the murder of their eleven-year-old daughter even as she becomes more prominent as a therapist. Pete and Jane O'May (Glenn Robbins and Rachael Blake), the other extramaritalist and her milquetoast husband, are descending slowly into lonely madness. And Nik and Paula Daniels (Vince Colosimo and Daniella Farinacci) are a token lower-middle-class couple thrown in to shame the rich folk with their robust family life.

It's fun to watch these people's little lives collapse under the weight of their own stupid choices, but "Lantana" doesn't deliver much more than that gleeful Schadenfreude. True, Rush and Hershey give their characters and their own private fears a convincing depth, but the rest of the actors either don't get enough space or don't have enough skills to show us why we should care about what's happening to them. Lawrence tries to convey gravity with a deliberate pace, hushed tones and intimate compositions, but his efforts are wasted on Bovell's script, as the writer packs in chance meetings and awkward encounters with such relentless zeal that the whole thing feels more like a scheme than a drama.

As a two-hour shot of the soap operatic, "Lantana" has a lot to offer. For one thing, the attractive, rich white people are middle-aged rather than young, bringing the feel of the proceedings a bit closer to reality. The plot twists and turns with agreeable regularity and unpredictability, and the revelations are shocking enough. Go see it, then, if you're in the mood for daring down-under dalliances. Just don't expect profundity to be lurking in the underbrush.




I brought Greg Villalobos along with me to this screening, because he loves Australia and everything about it. This turned out to be fruitful for coincidence generating. The Spanish song that plays during this Australian film's epilogue, for example, used to be Greg's favorite song. And Anthony LaPaglia was the star of the first Australian film that Greg saw while he was in Sydney. And in that first Australian film, LaPaglia's character took his date to see a movie in the theater in which Greg saw the film. I have to say that I found this a lot more interesting than most of the coincidences in "Lantana."




Not satisfied to like films the rest of the world hates with a passion (mostly actioners, which all of you know I am reviewing using completely different standards than most people), I now seem to be developing a little habit of disliking films the rest of the world celebrates as penetrating psychological dramas ("In the Bedroom" and this one). It's not on purpose. I have celebrated psychological dramas as penetrating before, and I plan on doing so again as soon as I see one that deserves the epithet. If any of you are wondering how an unattached 23-year-old can possibly assess whether a film about the marital troubles of middle-aged people is penetrating or not, well, you may have a point. But I was on the verge of laughing for most of this film.


All this tasty writing ©2002-11 by Andrew Lindemann Malone. All rights reserved.