15 July 2007 | Buddy-51
uneven but moving at times
"Constellation," which begins in 1940's Alabama, tells the tale of a secret, forbidden love between a black woman named Carmel and a white soldier named Bear, whose romance is cut short when he is shipped overseas to fight in the war. Flash forward fifty years to the funeral of Carmel - who never married after breaking up with Bear - which serves as the pretext for all the principal people in her life to gather together to air out their grievances and to thrash out the personal relationship problems that have haunted them all their lives. The participants include her emotionally distant brother and his two ex-wives; her two adult nieces and their respective men folk; and Bear himself, who, despite the fact that the two of them were kept apart all their lives by the restrictions of a racist society, has decided to pay not only for the services, but to put all these people up in one of the swankier hotels in Huntsville, Alabama.
Though there are a goodly number of insightful, touching moments in "Constellation," the movie probably would have been more effective had the screenplay (by director Jordan Walker-Pearlman) not tried to cram so many different characters into such a relatively short space of time (the movie runs barely over an hour and a half). Yes, I understand that the theme of the movie is all about how we form "constellations" with the people who are most important to us in life, but speaking strictly in narrative terms, much too often, the genuinely compelling travails of one character are shunted aside to make room for the far less interesting problems of another. Moreover, the romantic relationship between Carmel and Bear, which is supposed to function as the emotional cornerstone of the movie, is never made all that convincing. We are TOLD that these two people are in love with each other, but we aren't made to FEEL it. In addition, Aunt Carmel is portrayed as such a wise and ethereal earth-mother presence even after death that she is essentially robbed of her own individuality and humanity as a character.
Still, there is much that is good in the movie, starting with the performances of Billy Dee Williams, as a man incapable of making emotional connections with the people in his life, and Rae Dawn Chong, as the daughter who has the most trouble dealing with this reality. They are ably abetted by Lesley Ann Warren, Zoe Saldana, Melissa De Souza, and Hill Harper. The movie also boasts a flavorful soundtrack, filled with an eclectic mixture of musical styles, ranging from classical to hip hop to spiritual. The Huntsville setting also provides a refreshing change for audiences weary of seeing New York, Los Angeles and Chicago constantly being recycled in film after film, as if they were the only urban centers movie makers had to choose from.
The movie does lay its message on a bit thickly towards the end, employing heavy-handed speech-making and rather obvious symbolism to get its points across. It really doesn't need to go to all that effort, since the viewers could probably figure the themes out on their own given half a chance.
Yet, although "Constellation" is a decidedly mixed bag as far as family and social dramas go, it has enough elements of quality to make it worth checking out.