The Californians (2005) / Comedy-Drama

MPAA Rated: PG for language
Running Time: 90 min.

Cast: Noah Wyle, Illeana Douglas, Kate Mara, Cloris Leachman, Joanne Whalley, Keith Carradine, Valerie Perrine, Jane Lynch
Director: Jonathan Parker
Screenplay: Jonathan Parker, Catherine DiNapoli (adapted from the book, "The Bostonians", by Henry James)
Reviww published October 16, 2005

Four years prior, director/writer Jonathan Parker and co-screenwriter Catherine DiNapoli adapted a classic work, Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener", and made it into a feature film set in the present day.  It was a mildly amusing experiment, with just enough moments of cleverness to make the amateurishness easy to overlook.  Parker and DiNapoli are at it again, with an update of Henry James' work of women's suffrage, "The Bostonians", and while there are still moments of cleverness, there aren't quite enough to overcome the stiff camerawork, limited production values, and awkward characterizations. 

Perhaps the biggest reason why Bartleby succeeded where The Californians fails comes from the scope.  Bartleby is a small movie, with more personal themes, while The Californians necessitates a grander production and a wider base of appeal.  Parker does the best he can with limited resources, but his ideas require something larger than what he is able to muster in the finished project.  It feels rushed and unfocused, never generating enough momentum to keep this ambitious satire running with a full head of steam to drive the points home.

Noah Wyle (White Oleander, Scenes of the Crime) plays Gavin Ransom, a young real estate entrepreneur looking to push forward a huge housing development in the rolling hills of Marin County, California.  His twin sister, Olive (Douglas, Ghost World), is adamantly opposed to urban development, especially in a place as lovely as that where Gavin is planning to set up construction in.  Gavin wins the right to develop there in court, but not before Olive becomes fixated with a lovely young singer named Zoe Tripp (Mara, Tadpole), taking her under her protective wing and infusing with the song and spirit to lend a voice to the protest movement against Gavin's project.  Gavin also takes a fancy to the attractive Zoe, causing another tug-of-war between the siblings that distracts from their loftier one of ideas.

The Californians, like most satires, has some important underlying messages and themes running through, but it isn't so self-important that it doesn't show the ridiculousness of both sides of the issue.  The developers are seen as greedy and shallow, while the modern-day hippies trying to preserve the beauty of the environment are too wrapped up in their own feeling of self-importance that they no longer make sense even to themselves.  Commerciality vs. personal integrity are at war, and both sides sees the other as misguided and destructive.  Ironically, director Parker currently works a real estate developer, as well as a musician, when he isn't engaged in making movies, and he employs his knowledge of both to his film here.

The Californians has a few things to like other than its ambitiousness.  The cast is likeable, with an especially appealing role for singer/actress Kate Mara, who has the looks, smile and voice to believe she would be very attractive to people looking to market the next hot thing.  The songs are also well constructed, and even if the lyrics are intentionally message-heavy, they are quite catchy.   It may not be a great satire, but at least it is pleasant.

For all of its lofty ambitions, The Californians, like Gavin's real estate venture, has big ideas but it just never really clicks.  Perhaps the best illustration occurs within the movie itself, where Gavin is trying to impress Zoe with one of the homes he has built, lavishly fitted with conveniences that can be implemented with just the push of a button, but it just doesn't work out the way he'd like it to.  Gavin pushes a button to start one thing, and another starts instead, while other buttons are pushed to little avail.  Life imitates art -- for every button that Parker pushes, it only manifests itself in the confusion of his core themes and a few dead-ends.  Like most failed real estate projects, The Californians probably looked better on paper.

 Qwipster's rating:

2005 Vince Leo