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'Sunshine State'

Sayles' characters bring light to 'Sunshine State'

Friday, August 02, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

My favorite movie about land development in Florida features a man with a fake Italian accent asking the immortal question "Why a duck?" Nearly 75 years have passed since Groucho Marx in "The Cocoanuts" offered to sell three lots he bought for $9,000 to his brother Chico for $15,000 each "because I like you."

'Sunshine State'

RATING: PG-13 for brief strong language, a sexual reference and thematic elements

STARRING: Edie Falco, Angela Bassett, James McDaniel, Mary Steenburgen

DIRECTOR: John Sayles

WEB SITE: www.sonyclassics.



Obviously, only the prices have changed since then, which may be why the film "Sunshine State" starts off with a contemporary comedian, Alan King, playing golf and waxing philosophical about "creating nature on a leash" as developers bulldoze existing communities to turn the entire state into a condominium village.

It doesn't take long for the movie to begin exhibiting the standard characteristics of its writer and director, John Sayles, the commoner king of truly independent cinema.

The social undercurrents threatening an established way of life serve as the opportunity to examine the interconnections among the communities and individuals that stand to be affected by the coming change.

He's visited this theme before, and "Sunshine State" offers another of his earnestly rambling journeys into a specific subculture, featuring the kind of cast that films with bigger budgets can only dream of.

Two women are at the center of the film's parallel story lines. Marly Temple (Edie Falco) runs a roadside motel-restaurant located at what the developers consider a key site. She doesn't particularly like the job, but her crusty father (an unrecognizable Ralph Waite), whose health is on the wane, owns the place, and she's sure he won't sell. What she doesn't foresee is a relationship with the affable landscape architect (Timothy Hutton) laying out the new development.

If Marly's the one who stayed put, Desiree Temple (Angela Bassett) couldn't wait to leave. She grew up in the black community at Lincoln Beach, on the other side of Plantation Island, and left as a teen-ager. She is returning reluctantly with her anesthesiologist husband (James McDaniel) for a visit although she remains estranged from her mother, Eunice Stokes (Mary Alice). Inevitably, Desiree's past catches up to her in the person of Flash Phillips (Tom Wright), a former college football star who is moving back to the island.

Yet another thread of the film winds around Chamber of Commerce booster Francine Pinckney (Mary Steenburgen), who is trying to turn the island's history into a tourist attraction through a tacky pageant built around pirates. Her husband, Earl (Gordon Clapp), a businessman and elected official, finds himself dealing with the modern-day buccaneers hoping to make a buck by obliterating the island's heritage. The black community stands to lose, too, as the patriarchal Dr. Lloyd (Bill Cobbs) keeps pointing out.

The complications and contradictions become obvious and intertwined, but we are most likely to lose ourselves in the characters (the cast is every bit as good as we would expect) and their personal dilemmas, which are of the type we can all understand. As Sayles films go, this exhibits more of the warm personality of "Passion Fish" then it does the more troubled landscape of "Lone Star."

While the movie takes seriously the effects of development, they are more effective as metaphors for what is happening in the lives of the characters: Desiree, who thinks she has replaced the past with a shiny new veneer, only to have it dredged up again; Marly, who feels trapped by the past although her parents may have learned more from it than she realizes; and Francine, trying to trivialize the past for the sake of the present.

Sayles lets it all unfold to the point where the movie goes on a bit too long, and the denouement, while appropriate, might be too pat. But "Sunshine State" lets us bask in the glow of good actors playing recognizable people in a place where the local color hasn't yet been replaced by the tinge of long green.

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