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FAIR TO MUDDLING

By now, most people beyond the age of reason have noticed that Oprah and Geraldo and the rest of the TV blabbermouth shows are not really about child abuse or stockbrokers who cross-dress on weekends or teenagers who have sex with their parakeets. They're about reaction. The day's topic is not what matters (it's rarely debated with any intelligence whatsoever) but how often the show's host can get the guests to shout about it. The only real subject of these carefully constructed psychodramas is argument itself. That's what hooks big tabloid audiences and brings in big bucks: manufactured spectacle.

By contrast, Losing Isaiah, which tackles hot topics like interracial adoption and the definitions of motherhood, has all the nice manners of a Movie on a Meaningful Subject. The actors include the veteran Jessica Lange, who has an Oscar and five nominations under her belt, and Halle Berry, an attractive tyro who was once Miss Teen All-America and is now married to baseball star David Justice. The screenwriter, Naomi Foner, has clearly done all kinds of homework beyond the Seth Margolis novel that was her source. And the director, Stephen Gyllenhaal (A Dangerous Woman), brings his patented, hand-wringing sensitivity to almost every shot. Clearly, we are meant to pay attention here to some crucial life lessons.

But in the end, Isaiah comes off as a slightly elevated, public-television-flavored episode of Oprah--long on argument, short on substance and thoroughly convinced of its own importance. It's not as annoying as Oleanna, David Mamet's soulless tract on sexual harassment, and it bypasses the prurience of pseudo-message movies like Disclosure. But there's still plenty to bring it low.

Just to start, writer Foner (the director's spouse, as it turns out) seems so concerned with not offending anyone that she gives every viewpoint in the film's social debate absolutely equal time--as if she were, well, refereeing a fight. In this world of democratic drama, the combatants in the film's pivotal custody battle both put forth plausible arguments. Khaila Richards (Berry) may once have been a demolished crack addict so desperate for a blast that she abandoned her fatherless infant son on a frozen garbage heap. Now, three years later, she's clean and she wants her baby back. Perfectly reasonable. On the other hand, Margaret Lewin (Lange), a white Chicago social worker, has subsequently lovingly raised little Isaiah as her own, with plenty of help from her husband (perma-wimp David Strathairn) and daughter (Daisy Eagan). So doesn't she also have a real claim on motherhood? Perfectly reasonable, too.

Clearly, the movie means to be a litmus test for several hot-as-the-headlines social and racial issues, and its hesitation to come down on either side of the fence about any of them means to be evidence of the filmmakers' broadmindedness and their humility in the face of thorny choices. You decide, the movie says. Go ahead. Hash it out in the lobby.

Fine. But this equivocation eventually takes the dramatic steam out of Losing Isaiah. The climactic custody hearing (with attorney Samuel L. Jackson representing the suddenly glamorized Khaila and La Tanya Richardson for the Lewins) takes on a stiff classroom aura, and the film winds down to the kind of compromise solution we've envisioned all along. What could have been an emotional movie experience seems reduced to a bloodless debate. Somehow, you want the movie to pick a side--either side--to get its juices flowing.

This is a terrific subject, and the film has strengths, to be sure. Berry, who's been stuck until now in clunkers like Jungle Fever, The Flintstones and Boomerang, blossoms here as an actress, although some will complain (justifiably, I think) about the characterization of the young black mother as a crackhead. Certainly, these are not the only mothers who give up their babies. The kid, played by four-year-old Marc John Jeffries, could hardly be more appealing. And Lange once again displays her great range. But in a movie that seems evenhanded to a fault, Margaret's well-meaningness wears as thin as the filmmakers'.

At the end of these two hours, you might even find yourself yearning for a little of Oprah's or Geraldo's TV combat. It's synthetic, but it gives off some heat.

 
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