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Just Do It Again

[whitespace] Limbo
Next Time, We Go to Vegas: Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and David Strathairn camp out in all the wrong ways in 'Limbo.'

'Limbo' provides expiation in two easy hours

By Richard von Busack

THE QUICKEST way to cure a trauma is to force the sufferer to re-enact that trauma. I may not know much medicine, but what I've learned, I've learned in a movie theater. John Sayles' new film, Limbo, tells us that the best way to get over a scarring experience is to go out and do it all over again. The main character, Joe (David Strathairn), lost his crew in a boating accident and must face the sea for a rematch. In his more than a dozen films, writer/director Sayles has studied communities from the Texas border (in Lone Star) to New Jersey (City of Hope). But this communitarian quality jibes badly with what is actually a basic tale of survival in Limbo. The film is set in a small Alaskan town. In a few well-chosen shots, Sayles could have established the atmosphere of this ailing place, with its most optimistic years behind it--if he weren't so literal-minded. He's telling, not showing, and he tells for about 40 minutes.

Joe is a handyman who becomes involved with Donna, a flighty cocktail lounge singer (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), single-parenting a troubled daughter, Noelle (Vanessa Martinez). The relationship gives Joe the strength to go to sea again. Enter the villain: Casey Siemaszko, playing Joe's estranged half-brother, Bobby, stinking to high heaven with unsavoriness. Bobby has drug dealers looking for him; they intercept Joe's boat. Joe, Noelle and Donna barely escape. Stranded on a remote Alaskan island, they wait for rescue.

Sayles has the guts to leave his story with an open ending: The film literally closes in limbo. You could say that the early scenes of the decaying community are meant to underscore the isolation; you're not sure anyone will be looking out for the castaways. Unfortunately, the acting is as rocky as the Alaska coast. As young as Martinez is, she outshines Mastrantonio. What should seem like an equal mix of resentments between mother and adolescent daughter instead makes Donna appear to be a stereotypical bad mom. Joe is supposed to have been a basketball player who blew out his knee, but isn't it hard to imagine Strathairn doing something joyous like playing basketball?

I wish that Sayles had added dimensions to Joe's character by showing how his shipwreck had weakened him, making him nose-blind to his half-brother's stink. I wish Joe hadn't been such a sturdy movie paragon. Real traumas have been healed in hospitals, or talked out in therapy. Movies, however, require scenes of an individual cutting his own way in the world. The idea of fixing a problem with the help of an adventure is the simple excuse for a story, and, in a sense, not a real story. Only in the movies can you find expiation in two easy hours.

Limbo (R; 126 min.), written and directed by John Sayles, photographed by Haskell Wexler and starring David Strathairn and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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From the June 16-23, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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