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November 15-21, 2006

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'Little Children'

Pool Pals: Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson toy with adultery in 'Little Children.'

Leave It To Cheever

In Todd Field's 'Little Children,' the suburban parents are overgrown children straight out of a Cheever short story

By Richard von Busack

HOW INTERESTING to hear some of our cannier film critics muttering "Cheever" on the way out of seeing Little Children. As in John Cheever's short stories, Todd Field's adaptation of Tom Perrotta's novel gives our eastern suburbs a good scathing.

But didn't John Cheever's people have a better time? They were adulterers, like Perrotta's characters. And like Perrotta's people, Cheever's people were overgrown children, middle-agers still in love with their brief time on the gridiron or the track, or with their illusions of limitless happiness. At least they also got a few drinks in here and there. They socialized; they hosted cocktail parties. Perrotta's vision is chillier—befitting a harder-working and more austere era—an era more panicked about fanatics with bombs, more fearful of perverts lurking under the stairs, ready to scoop up their offspring.

Looking into the future in the novel, Sarah thinks about what it's going to be like for her and her daughter: "Best friends and bitter rivals ... fodder for years of therapy, if they could figure out a way to pay for it." Cheever's people would have just had their nannies escort the little brats out to the country club pool and made up another pitcher of martinis. (Of course, the next generation had its revenge, as we know from reading all of those many, many memoirs.)

Perrotta's tragic-comic vision of East Wyndham, Mass., gives us unhappy affluence relieved by a summer's adultery. The vision comes from Flaubert. Sarah read Madame Bovary in college, but she didn't really get it (she or her teachers decided it was misogynist). Thus she is condemned to repeat the novel's plot. Even the narration by Leon Vitali (credited as "Oddly Familiar Man") means to remind viewers of the authorial, slightly disdainful voice of a PBS host—or Flaubert.

Sarah (Kate Winslet) takes her child Lucy to the park to putter on a swing set, as the adult gossips with three other boring mommies. (Field arranges them as a brunette, a blonde and a redhead—a little on the nose). Sarah tells herself that she is an anthropologist stuck amid the moms.

On a dare, she approaches and kisses a strange man whom the mother hens have been swooning over; they've nicknamed him "The Prom King." As this attractive Mr. Mom, Patrick Wilson is well-cast for prom-king handsomeness, the kind that looks weak and a little neurotic. Brad—of course, his name is Brad—is very married. His wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), who works as a documentary maker, is as physically attractive as she is physically unavailable. She is disinclined to kick her 3-year-old son Aaron out of their marital bed yet. ("I don't want to sleep with his foot in my face," whines Brad, to which Kathy replies, "It's a perfect foot.") Over the summer, Brad and Sarah have a torrid affair, contrasted with summer rainstorms and look-but-don't-touch meetings at the public swimming pool.

Field trimmed the subplot of Sarah's husband's Internet sex fling, but Little Children has more deviance in store. A sex pervert named Ronald roams free, just released from jail. He haunts the local families with his presence, although a local one-man vigilance group (Noah Emmerich) has plastered the exhibitionist's mugs hot over every flat surface in town.

Ronald, himself one of the other "little children" of the title, is tended to by his own mother: a superb Phyllis Somerville, who manages to combine a mother's concern with an element of self-deluded battiness. Speaking of bats, Ronald looks like Henry Fonda playing Nosferatu; a large bulbous forehead, but with the shining eyes and the tiny but prominent teeth of some small, egg-sucking predator.

Jackie Earle Haley, a sinister former child actor, if you can imagine that, plays Ronald. Recently, Haley walked away from the wreckage of All the King's Men without a scratch. He plays Willie Stark's gun-wielding bodyguard, always hovering in the background, diligently oiling and cleaning and testing his revolver, always making possible the threat of Stark's violence. (Since Sean Penn plays Stark, the violence seems inward directed; perhaps his frizzy head is going to explode during a speech.) Haley seems like the only real Southerner in that Yankified movie. Unfortunately, as Ronald, Haley gives a performance that goes whimperingly out of bounds at the end; this perhaps was an inevitable in a movie directed by a former actor (Field did a lot of TV shows and had a part in Eyes Wide Shut).

Despite Ronald, it's East Wyndham that Field makes the real villain in Little Children. No chance of finding calm or quiet happiness exists in this labyrinth of narrow minds, far scarier than the caves in The Descent. To Field's great credit, he shows us authentic 3-year-olds: uncute, demanding, living lives of their own and openly resenting their parents for interfering.

Little Children easily outdistances American Beauty, since that Oscar-bait hit insisted that the path to happiness is for parents to become better parents. In East Wyndham, they work their asses off on parental duty, and if they find happiness it's almost in spite of the kids. Little Children's parents are hypervigilant already. Check the hideo-comic scene of a swimming pool clearing out when the pale, meek pervert Ronald dives in with swim fins, snorkel and mask. Everyone scatters as if he were the second coming of Bruce the Great White Shark.

The adults, having run out of ideas, gravitate to what Susan Faludi called "ornamental manhood"—especially the punishing touch-football games Brad goes in for at night. Little Children supplies the antidote for one damned inspirational football movie after another. And its sultriness and wit make it a really adult movie.

Playing up her sturdiness, her furry dark brows and the wiry unruliness of her old-gold hair, Winslet is the best Emma Bovary I've seen—even if she's named Sarah, not Emma. When Sarah examines herself in the bathroom mirror, as Lucy nags her outside the door, you can just hear Emma Bovary repeating, as she did in the novel: "I have a lover, I have a lover." That line is the epigraph of Perrotta's novel.

In interviews, Field claims the studio was worried that Winslet was too drabbed down, slumming around in overalls and Birkenstocks. Yet Field has caught the humidity in Winslet, the avidness and recklessness that makes her so watchable even in her more flaccid movies.

Just as Madeleine in Vertigo emerged in a blur of green neon light, in one moment Winslet's eager face is suffused in a wavy turquoise glow reflected from the swimming pool. "Hot enough for you?" asks Sarah, during one loll on the towel next to Brad, this perfect physical specimen she is convinced that she loves and must have. Yes, definitely, hot enough.

Movie Times Little Children (R; 130 min.), directed by Todd Field, written by Field and Tom Perrotta, based on Perrotta's novel, photographed by Antonio Calvache and starring Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson, opens Nov. 17.

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