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Write It Off

French director Barbet Schroeder's fifth American film, Before and After, strains to say something important about families--what binds them together, what tears them apart--in an age of moral ambiguity. In a more oblique way, this was also the subject of Martin Scorsese's harrowing remake of the classic thriller Cape Fear, in which a family with stains on it is stalked by a psychopath whose vengeance is pure. Come to think of it, each film employs a teenage daughter as the narrator who delivers what amounts to a disillusioned post-mortem on the family's trauma.

The problem with Before and After is that you can boil the whole thing down--you're forced to, really--to a cliche. Combine a dead girl in the snow and a lie a father forces on his sixteen-year-old son for his own good, and the movie fairly shouts: Honesty is the best policy! Once you've had that thrown at you ten minutes into the proceedings, there's no more room for drama and no way to debate the issue with yourself in the dark.

The perpetrator of this faux pas may be screenwriter Ted Tally, who is now zero for two in 1996 in view of the awful legal thriller The Juror. Perhaps novelist Rosellen Brown's the one. In either case, the victims are a very fine cast, which includes Liam (Schindler's List) Neeson as the wary, suspicious father who burns evidence that might link his son to murder; versatile Meryl Streep as a mother whose faith in the boy is complete; and young Edward Furlong as a sensitive kid in a man-sized pickle. And Alfred Molina is terrific as a sharpie defense lawyer full of feints and bobs and hard talk. All of them act their tails off, but for what?

As usual, the Schroeder style is impeccable. The New England village where the tale is set looks gray and chilly and forbidding, as befits a town without pity that turns on the Ryan family when their boy Jacob is accused of killing his sometime girlfriend. The hospital emergency room is sickly green. The windows in the garage where Jacob's bloody car is parked glow eerie red. From Reversal of Fortune to Barfly to Single White Female, Schroeder has proven himself a master of emotional texture.

But the Ryan family crisis never builds up steam because their postures are so pat and predictable. Neeson's temperamental Ben Ryan, the creator of huge, ungainly sculptures that have somehow made him famous, suspects his kid of the killing, but later, when he compromises the boy to save him, all Tally can give him to say is: "The worst thing you can be called is someone who didn't stand up for his family." Mrs. Ryan, an M.D., doesn't agree: The worst thing they can call you is a liar.

And so it goes--the arrest, the recounting of the death, the nasty townspeople, the shattered familial trust, the truth of the matter, the inevitable aftermath in which Jacob's little sister (Julia Weldon), now older and wiser, remembers the before and after of her family's critical moment. By then, the life energy in the trauma has all seeped away: Great idea; nice directing job; terrific actors; lousy screenplay.--Gallo

Before and After.
Screenplay by Ted Tally, based on a book by Rosellen Brown. Directed by Barbet Schroeder. With Meryl Streep, Liam Neeson, Edward Furlong and Julia Weldon.

 
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