We're looking at quite the musical festivities, folks, and fellas, it's Sophie's choice tonight! That was lame, I know, but it was a little better than referencing the "Hairspray" song, because that would be way too perky for a film of this type. First it was an actual miniseries titled "Holocaust", and then this, so it would appear as though the Holocaust was popular subject matter for Meryl Streep, up until they figured out that she's not actually Jewish, and is just from New Jersey. Well, she leaves the Holocaust film industry with a bang here, not necessarily because the movie is so good, but because she's playing a Polish immigrant with the last of name of Zawistowski, and she's Jewish enough by associating herself with Alan J. Pakula. Needless to say, Pakula's directing, production and writing this, because this is a serious passion project for his Polish-Jewish self, which would get me mighty pumped up if this film's runtime wasn't two-and-half hours, on the dot. Hey, I dig a good, long drama and all, but I've seen about half of Pakula's 138-minute-long "All the President's Men", and by that, I mean that I slept through the other half. Well, as luck would have it, this film is mighty rewarding to the patient, although, make no mistake, it does have a tendency to try your patience, and not just with its pacing.
This is a very heavy drama which touches upon a lot of weighty dramatics and worthy themes, and does so typically with a powerful realism, thus, when the film does slip into melodramatics, it's really hard to get past the momentary lapses in genuineness, no matter how mild. Inconsistencies go well beyond the level of genuineness in the drama, because much more than it gets carried away with certain dramatics, the film gets carried away with layering its narrative, which alternates between a young stranger befriending strange folks in a strange land from which he hopes to emerge as a successful novelist, and a biting study on the trauma of a Holocaust survivor who can't seem to ever escape some form of anguish, both of which are so distinguished in tone and theme that their juxtaposition shakes a sense of evenness. If nothing else, the layers leave the heavier subject matter to call your attention towards the banality of the relatively light subject matter, which in turn defused much dramatic momentum, thus resulting in natural shortcomings that probably shouldn't even be in the concept, limiting value with a certain blandness which is not helped by slow spells. Really, with all of my joking about fearing that this film would be dull, I was rarely bored, and when I was, then just barely, yet the fact of the matter is that there are dull spells hit every now and then when Alan Pakula's thoughtfulness loses material to draw upon, in the midst of all of the dragging. Yes, if nothing else is problematic here, it's the film's simply being too blasted long, for although I certainly appreciate a drama which has the guts to get extensive with its storytelling, there's something almost monotonous about the film's meandering along its uneven and sometimes limp path, whose other shortcomings might have been forgotten if the final product didn't take its time to be intimate with all of its blemishes. There are occasions in this film that I really dig, but considering that the film is so long, those occasions are relatively rare, and no matter how much the film compels consistently, it could have been more in certain places, and could have settled down in others. Of course, perhaps it is simply momentum's being subdued by questionable structuring that holds the final product back a bit, as the mistakes are limited, at least in comparison with the strengths.
A touch unevenly used, Marvin Hamlisch's score, upon coming into play, is anything from sweeping to piercingly subtle, as surely as Nestor Almendros' cinematography, despite often being rather subdued, has some subtle dynamicity which is near-captivating enough without highlights in a distinguished palette that sometimes haunts when it falls upon memorable visuals. Aesthetic value is subtle, but it is very much there when you find it, being so tasteful that it actually reflects an artistic ambition which is nothing short of worthy, because even though one can go on and on debating the unevenness in the weight of the story layers, most every branch in this narrative intrigues, whether it be focusing on the charming tale of an aspiring writer making new friends with disturbing secrets, or focusing on the aspiring tale of a woman facing terrible struggles during and followed one of the great travesties of the modern world, there's plenty of potential, as Alan J. Pakula realize. This means that the storytelling is characterized by a sense of ambition that leads to some questionably overblown aspects, until met with true inspiration within Pakula's efforts, both as a writer of razor-sharp dialogue and thoroughly extensive characterization, and as a director whose thoughtfulness is rarely all that dulling when its bite lapses, with heights in realization which, during the lighter moments, entertain, and, during the heavier moments, devastates. This drama is emotionally challenging, and I mean that in a very good way, for although the film doesn't hold up enough to momentum to stand out on the whole, its highlights are penetrating in their doing great justice to great and valuable subject matter, which thrives on a human heart that in turn thrives on hearty performances. This is a big cast, but only so many members receive a fare share of attention, and when they do, they carry the soul of this character drama, with Peter MacNicol being sharp enough in his charm and convincing enough in his portrayal of a caring man of sophistication and ambition helps in making the Sting character's relatively light story so endearing, even again subject matter so hefty, while Kevin Kline steals the show at time in his even more convincing portrayal of a thoroughly charismatic and often flamboyant man whose emotional instabilities make shifts into intense and violent fury disturbingly unpredictable. Of course, at the end of the day, the true show-stealer here is the lovely Meryl Streep, whose excellence, plain and simple, cannot be overstated, as she is astonishingly impeccable, not simply with an accent as challenging as that of a pole, but with her vulnerable and emotionally intense portrayal of a woman seeking excitement, joy and love in a free world that go challenged by yet more sorrow and isolation which remind her of struggles no human should have suffer through, resulting in a performance so nuanced, so transformative, and so piercing that it simply would have to be seen in order to be believed, were it not beyond believe, let alone words. Streep is amazing, and although I won't go so far as to say that I wish the film itself was nearly of that quality, Streep is one of many highlights that could have made an excellent film, or at least a strong one, and yet, the final product is never less than engrossing as a thoroughly rewarding drama.
In conclusion, there is a hint of bloating to the dramatics, and a great deal of bloating a structure which has a tendency to fall into inconsistencies in a sense of consequence that dilutes dramatic magnitude about as much as dry spells and meanderings, thus, the final product falls way shy of a potential that is still juicy enough for beautiful scoring and cinematography, inspired and often emotionally impacting writing and direction, and powerful performances - the most powerful of which being by the amazing Meryl Streep - to prove to be enough to secure Alan J. Pakula's "Sophie's Choice" as a rewarding and often enthralling portrait on human instabilities and great secrets.
3/5 - Good