30 September 2005 | noralee
Even Trophy Girlfriends Get the Memphis Blues
"40 Shades of Blue" updates Tennessee Williams and puts his archetypal characters into the Memphis music scene. Rip Torn is like Big Daddy, here a legendary music producer (as bolstered by taking fictional credit for the classic soul songs of Bert Berns with local color provided by musical luminaries such as Jim Dickinson and Sid Selvidge) and his mannerisms recall Sam Phillips. As his son, Darren Burrows, in a hunky and magnetic return to public consciousness since TV's "Northern Exposure," recalls Brick, though here his brooding is Oedipal. Dina Korzun is a trophy girlfriend who depends on the kindness of strangers.
In a mirror image of "Laurel Canyon," which also brought a prodigal son home to a legendary music producer parent with a younger lover, co-writer/director Ira Sachs well creates believable strained family interactions. All three interact so sweetly with the lovely toddler son that it becomes clear what warmth is missing among the adults.
The production design and use of Memphis locales reinforce an industry town where Torn's "Alan James" is well-known, and a lived-in house that includes photos and portraits on the living room wall. We also see that his cohort impresarios (whose music is actually passé these days in Memphis, as shown in "Hustle & Flow" and Torn refers to in a speech that nostalgically recalls how classic soul music was a partnership between black and whites) are mostly surrounded by much younger women.
Korzun's trophy girlfriend "Laura" is the most problematical, but it's not clear if it's the script or her acting. Sometimes she is clearly in "Lost in Translation" mode, as a Russian who has no connection to Memphis music and nothing to say to the people surrounding Torn and vice versa, and she wistfully notes that when she writes in English her handwriting looks like a child's.
Sometimes her teen age babysitter has more gumption and insight than she does. The other characters are constantly asking her how she's doing and she gives a different lie each time. Other times she can speak forthrightly and stand up for her opinions, as when she insists to a friend that the father and son do not share looks or characteristics, or acknowledging that she is living better than anyone from her home. From the opening scene of her shopping in the cosmetics section of a department store as symbols of her putting on her game face, her character seems to be Sphinx-like, but Korzun does create a sympathetic portrait of a confused, trapped bird and your heart does go out to her poignant efforts to be her own woman.
The film seems to build toward a confrontation that almost happens but doesn't quite, though that might mean that the characters have made a decision about their lives, as the son chooses not to be like his father, after several scenes where he did seem to be imitating his behavior.
The lack of a climax may be realistic, but it doesn't make for effective drama.