Water, water, everywhere,
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Nor any drop to drink.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798)
You can lead an audience to a water movie,
But you don’t have to make them think.
Hollywood, California (circa 2000)
Here’s the first thing you need to know about The Perfect Storm, the movie: If you’ve got a low-tolerance bladder, do not—I repeat, DO NOT—under any circumstances order a Giant Gulp soft drink at the refreshment counter.
Here’s the second thing you need to know about The Perfect Storm, the movie: Stay home and read The Perfect Storm, the book.
Sadly, I did not heed my own advice.
And so, by the time I was at the high-water mark of Wolfgang Petersen’s storm-tossed film, I was feeling the effects of “too much Coke, too little bladder. All that “water, water, everywhere” on the screen was really doing a number on my nether-regions. I turned to my trusty first mate (my wife) and groaned, “Ahoy, matey! Our decks are about to be swamped with a yellow tide!” She immediately deployed nautical emergency procedures by getting up and moving over two seats.
Just then, a skyscraper-sized wave swept over George Clooney and I knew the end was near—for the character, the movie and my poor bladder. By the time the calm seas of the end credits were rolling, I was limping up the aisle, headed straight for relief. It had been a long two hours and ten minutes. And I mean that in the non-bladder sense of the word as well.
It’s not that The Perfect Storm is a bad movie—not at all (in fact, as far as epic-proportioned sea adventures go, it’s right up there with Titanic)—it’s just that it should never have been made in the first place.
Normally, I try to stay away from those book-versus-movie debates because I’m afraid my bias will show through (hint: the book nearly always wins). In this case, however, I have to dive in.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more thrilling piece of journalism than Sebastian Junger’s 1997 account of the fishing boat Andrea Gail as her six-man crew encounters the “storm of the century” off the Atlantic’s Grand Banks. Junger uses a novelist’s flair to combine historical anecdotes, scientific data and dramatic insight into the ill-fated fishermen. In my review of the book, I mentioned the fact that the book will have you “so white-knuckled you’ll be leaving permanent thumbprints on the pages.”
The movie certainly has its share of moments where you’ll be putting the death-grip on the armrests of your theater seat (even if you’re not suffering from “Giant Gulp-itis”), but it fails to capture the people at the heart of the drama the way the book did. Not that it doesn’t have plenty of opportunities. In fact, its decks are awash with chances to take us deeper under the salt-soaked skin of its characters, but The Perfect Storm squanders valuable screen time with inane dialogue and lackluster landlubber blubber.
Screenwriter William Witliff puts such incomprehensibly dull words in the actors’ mouths that you expect them to do a lot of spitting just to get rid of the bad taste. Instead, you see a weary stupor on their faces—a look that seems to say, “Get on with the big-budget special effects already!” The landlocked dialogue is especially disappointing coming from Witliff since he wrote some terrific, character-driven scripts back in the early 1980s (Raggedy Man, Country and Barbarosa—small-budget movies which had even smaller audiences).
Since the dialogue does a real glub-glub number, it’s up to the hardy crew of actors to keep their heads above water. With the exception of a teeth-grindingly bad performance by Diane Lane, they succeed. As Billy Tyne, the Andrea Gail’s skipper, Clooney gives his most restrained performance to date. Gone are the smirk, the arched eyebrow, the pretty-boy posturing. In their wake, the dashing leading man throws the dash overboard and gets scruffy and haggard. Tyne is having the worst fishing season of his career and you can see that grim desperation in Clooney’s eyes.
Turning in equally realistic sea-salt performances are the reliable supporting actors Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly, William Fichtner and Allen Payne. The crewmember I was most impressed with was John Hawkes as the skinny goofball Mike “Bugsy” Moran. Hawkes gets an early scene in a bar when he tries to pick up a plus-sized single mother (Rusty Schwimmer) that’s as poignant as it is funny. Hawkes has been in a few movies I’ve seen (Home Fries, Playing God, Congo), but this is the first time he’s stuck in my memory with a performance that’s well worth noting.
The deep-water performances of Clooney and Hawkes are counterbalanced, however, by the shrill, over-the-top skills of Diane Lane. It pains me to say this because I’ve had a not-so-secret crush on Miss Lane since her debut in A Little Romance, but her portrayal of Wahlberg’s girlfriend in The Perfect Storm is just plain imperfect. In a cast marked by subtlety, she’s anything but.
Of course, the same could be said for all the high-emotion notes the movie itself reaches for. The film begins and ends with the camera slowly panning over the walls of Gloucester’s City Hall, which bears the names of the lost-at-sea. Whap! That was the sound of the filmmakers hitting you over the head with the message “Life’s a beach and then you die.” In case you didn’t quite feel that rap on the skull, The Perfect Storm spends (or, wastes) another hour getting all soggy with dialogue like “I love the sea, but I can't stand to be more than two feet from my woman.”
This is all fueled by James Horner’s triple-forte score which is designed to wring every last salty tear from your eyes. As he’s proved in nearly every soundtrack he’s touched (Titanic, Legends of the Fall, ad nauseam), Mr. Horner mistakes ear-assaulting symphonic fervor for emotion-enhancing accompaniment. The music is beautiful to listen to, but boy does it know it.
Ultimately, what keeps The Perfect Storm from completely capsizing is the sound and fury of the movie’s drenched second half. The colliding weather fronts are, of course, why we’ve shelled out the over-priced admission, why we’ve crossed our legs when Giant Gulps threaten to overwhelm us, why we’ve treaded water during the first hour’s buildup. Director Wolfgang Petersen—who gave us the best-ever submarine movie (Das Boot) and the best-ever President-in-peril movie (Air Force One)—keeps the pace and tension high once the winds start howling and the waves start crashing. In a summer that’s given us digitally-enhanced tigers (Gladiator) and tomahawks (The Patriot), the special effects on display here are truly spectacular. Just as Junger’s prose made me hold my breath for pages on end, the movie also had me gasping for air.
Well, it was either that or my Giant Gulped bladder.
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