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Photograph by Larry Riley

Winter of Discontent: Anthony LaPaglia plays a father trying to connect with his sons in 'Winter Solstice.'

Jersey Boys

'Winter Solstice' takes place between the lines

By Richard von Busack

THE MEMBERS OF THE WINTERS family of Winter Solstice live in suburban New Jersey, survivors of an event so painful they never mention it. During one summer, they are beginning to separate. Jim (Anthony LaPaglia, paunchy, jowly, overdue at the barber shop), the father, is a hard-working landscape contractor. His eldest son, Gabe (Aaron Stanford), works produce at the local grocery store. The younger brother, Pete (Mark Webber), is stuck in summer school, because of his inexplicable refusal to apply himself. Then Molly Ripkin (Allison Janney) moves into the neighborhood to house-sit for the summer. This unemployed paralegal cracks the reserve of the family, enabling the father to reach out to his sons, just as they're about to slip out of his life.

Director/writer Josh Sternfeld brings a sense of the sullenness of a small town: summer nights gathering at the Dairy Queen, an inconsequential fistfight outside the convenience store. It's clear Sternfeld was seeking timelessness. Inside Gabe's room, we see records, not CDs, packed in a crate. This movie is so purged of reference points that it could be taking place anytime in the last 30 years. Neither the cars, the fashions, the TV programs nor the music tips us off about whether the setting is now or yesterday.

Perhaps the women in the picture are in high relief because they are not three men brooding over a tragedy that won't be revealed until precisely the right dramatic point—the moment so well-chosen you could set your watch by it. Janney is soft here, ash-blonde, with internal humidity showing through that awkward face. (She's not conventionally pretty, but neither was Bette Davis.) I liked the clumsy way her Molly puts her head on a man's shoulder and the spirit with which she says, "Yes, I am!" when Jim asks her if she's really a paralegal. (Jim's question is weird; it's like, "We don't get many paralegals round these parts.")

As Gabe's soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend Stacey, Michelle Monaghan supplies a burst of energy in this polished but undernourished film. Maybe Monaghan just provides the aesthetic pleasure of seeing a slender girl on a bicycle on a tree-lined street. In Stacey's scenes, Sternfeld has even come up with a visual motif (and he's not primarily a visual storyteller). Every time we see Stacey, she is on or near a bicycle, as if she is going to be pedaling out of sight at any minute.

The plight of a film like Winter Solstice is that it's very well made without being very interesting. It's like that slaved-over short story in The New Yorker that you can't finish before the ennui sets in. You can see the craft in every well-chosen word and appreciate the acuteness of the perceptions, and yet some fatigue overcomes you, as vague and irrational as the resentment people have against Toyotas for being so reliable. They say writing is the art of subtraction. Perhaps what happened in Winter Solstice is that something vital was accidentally subtracted from it?


Winter Solstice (R, 89 min.), directed and written by Jost Sternfeld, photographed by Harlan Bosmajian and starring Allison Janney, Anthony LaPaglia and Aaron Stanford, opens Friday at selected theaters.


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From the April 20-26, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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