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Jerry (Benicio Del Toro) lives in what appears to be a one room dormitory with a sink and a lover that, for all we see, may have died the night before. Jerry shows up for his very committed best friend, Brian’s (David Duchovny) funeral wearing a suit that was clearly cut for him when he was a different size. Jerry tucks cigarettes behind his ear and when he smokes them he clutches them until they reach the butt, the smoke wafting beautifully between his fingers and tortured face. Jerry has a habit of calling friends out on their mistakes with a little “mwaw mwaw” sound that he most likely borrowed from a game show that ran during his youth. Jerry is also a heroin addict and, in relapse, he asks for a Snickers bars and ice cream to sooth his Hellish return to proper consciousness. If you had to be a heroin addict, you’d want to be Jerry. Hell, if you’re hung-over, you’d still want to be Jerry, to look half as mysteriously, glamorously ravaged as Jerry at his worst.
People have called Benicio Del Toro’s work in Things We Lost in the Fire brilliant, and the performance is, undoubtedly, quite an achievement. But is it the sort of achievement this particular picture desperately needs? Del Toro gives the viewer all sorts of bits and pieces to chew on, the little slipping on the woman’s white glove ticks that people respond to because they can be identified so confidently as “acting”. As memorable as Del Toro’s portrayal of Jerry is, it still represents a bit of treading water for the actor. Note the word “glamorous” above, how glamorous should an unstable heroin addict be? Things We Lost in the Fire, as its Book of the Month club title indicates, is a self-improvement Oscar fantasy. We wish the Jerry’s of the world were this likable, and we wish that we could help them, while compromising our own lives as little as possible.
Del Toro’s Jerry is fascinating and alive but he doesn’t feel like a fascinating and alive drug addict. This is the film that could use a shitting of the pants. Allan Loeb’s rigid and unwavering screenplay has no room for that sort of thing though, he’s too busy stating his theme (which is repeated three times at the end in case you went to the bathroom for, I don’t know, 110 minutes). Susanne Bier’s direction only further highlights the script’s obviousness, this thing needs to be played loose and dingly dangly, Bier instead cuts many of the major scenes into a series of close-ups, with characters staring into space for prolonged moments as the score does an instrumental number that all but broadcasts SERIOUS.
Normally I probably wouldn’t have even bothered to review Fire, you get what you pay for after all, but the film continues to show frustrating signs of promise only to dash them time and again. Jerry eventually accepts an offer from Audrey, Brian’s widow, (Halle Berry) to stay with her and her two children in a joint effort to stitch together a few threads of their lives. Jerry and Audrey have a palpable sexual tension, and for a moment my hopes rose; as a love story that blossoms in one the more inappropriate situations imaginable, this picture had a chance. I normally don’t buy Berry in her bids for award winning actress, but she fares surprisingly well here and with material that’s considerably weaker than Del Toro’s. On the page Audrey is a noble suffering wife, but Berry imbues the part with a ripe, ambiguous sexuality that she didn’t manage in her over-praised performance in Monster’s Ball. Audrey and Jerry look one another over, with varying degrees of hate, arousal and distrust, and for a few moments I forgot which picture I was watching.
Bier and Loeb soon reminded me, and so the film remains stuck, never to diverge too far from the message, never to acknowledge that the characters might, for a moment, be fallible, or (perish the thought!) unlikable. The Audrey/Jerry story remains safe and the children remain photogenic and largely untroubled. Even a less controversial but appealing friendship that Jerry develops with Audrey’s neighbor Howard (John Carroll Lynch), is cut distressingly short.
And what of everyone’s immediate taking to Jerry anyway? The dangers of choosing a drug addict you barely directly know as a surrogate friend, husband or father is never elaborated upon much either, nor is the guilt that could arise from immediately grasping on to someone else in the wake of another’s death. As in most films that deal with drug or mental abuse, Jerry’s problem is just a means to a dramatic short-cut, a healing that would probably, outside of fantasy, be safer to seek elsewhere. There’s no room for any inconvenient feeling or messiness in Things We Lost in the Fire, it wants us to simply “take the good with the bad.” This film could use quite a bit more of both.