It's daunting to hear that John Sayles's new film, Sunshine State, is almost two and a half hours long and mostly consists of calm conversations. But don't be deterred, or you'll miss out on a study of character, class and changing times that puts Robert Altman's stodgy Gosford Park to shame. The setup is similar -- take one basic setting and explore the interactions among various residents and visitors. However, unlike Altman, who often favors indulgent improvisation, Sayles scripts his work tightly. So, despite the long running time, the pace never feels slack -- there's no scene that screams "bathroom break!"
In a small beachfront town in Florida, rival developers are vying to buy up all the property from residents who've lived there for years. Returning home for the first time since she was fifteen is infomercial actress Desiree (Angela Bassett), who is hoping to make peace with her stern mother, Eunice (Mary Alice). Eunice has taken under her wing her late nephew's son Terrell (Alexander Lewis), but hasn't managed to steer him clear of trouble: As the movie opens, he's setting fire to a float scheduled for use on Buccaneer Day -- an attempt by chamber-of-commerce booster Francine (Mary Steenburgen, terrifyingly convincing) to create a tradition-based local holiday. Francine's married to Earl (Gordon Clapp), a compulsive gambler who occasionally attempts suicide ineptly and is in league with one of the developers, the strategy-minded Lester (Miguel Ferrer) who uses terms like "beachhead" and "hostile natives."
On the other side is Jack (Timothy Hutton), a landscaper who likes to keep certain trees and landmarks intact in the interest of making people feel as though they're in a natural setting, only with more control ("Nature on a leash," as another character puts it). Both Jack and Lester are vying for land occupied by a motel-restaurant combo run by once-aspiring actress Marly Temple (Edie Falco, Oscar-worthy in the best female performance of the year so far). Marly's dad (Ralph Waite) is aggressively opposed to selling, even as he bemoans new laws that constrain businesses. And Marly's mom (Jane Alexander) is a school drama teacher who once taught Desiree and now recruits Terrell to build stage props as part of his community-service arrangement. And we haven't yet mentioned the local football hero with an embarrassing secret or two, or the aging golfers whose segments serve as the wraparound for the entire story.
The plot mainly follows Desiree and Marly, who cross paths directly only once, early on, though most of the other people in their lives interact in some fashion. Driven out of town at a young age by her mother, Desiree now has to come to grips with Eunice's resentment that they haven't spoken for so long. When Desiree laments, "I don't like who I am down here," she speaks for all of us who like to think we've changed and yet find ourselves regressing when we return to the realm of our childhood. Marly is in some ways the opposite: She aspired to bigger things that would've taken her out of town, but instead she wound up running the family business because it was what her father wanted. Both women must deal with the adjusted expectations of leaving youth behind and decide to what extent they're going to accept or deny the past.
The past -- the nation's, the town's, the individual characters' -- is part of the film's larger theme. One older black man is nostalgic for segregation, noting that back then some African-Americans actually owned a few of the local businesses, because no whites would set up shop in their area. Francine's busy trying to create a tradition out of the state's immigrant history, but she's stymied by the unfortunate historical truths of genocide and slavery. And Terrell's a good kid with a dangerously delinquent side inherited from his father -- can he go right or is he similarly doomed? And then, of course, there's the whole past-versus-future dynamic of "redevelopment."
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Lest this all sound too much like a civics class, however, rest assured that there's plenty of dry humor. One character is introduced, out of the blue, in extreme close-up, and as he rambles on about what things were like in his day, the camera slowly pulls back until it ultimately reveals a sly joke so obvious that you won't expect it. A laconic alligator wrangler seems directly cribbed from the documentary Home Movie. There's even a possible nod to Quentin Tarantino, as Sayles throws in a conversation about an old TV show that's as hilarious as it is pointed. Sayles seems almost as amused by contemporary tackiness as he is righteously appalled by some of its effects, and that fine line gives the movie's final joke its punch.