Dir: Rodrigo Garcia. US. 2000. 110 mins.
Prod cos: Franchise Pictures. US dist: United Artists. Int'l sales: Franchise Pictures. Exec prods: Elie Samaha, Andrew Stevens. Prods: Jon Avnet, Lisa Lindstrom, Marsha Oglesby. Scr: Rodrigo Garcia. DoP: Emmanuel Lubezki. Mus: Edward Shearmur. Ed: Amy E Duddleston. Main cast: Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Cameron Diaz, Calista Flockhart, Amy Brenneman, Kathy Baker, Gregory Hines, Valeria Golino, Matt Craven, Roma Maffia, Elpidia Carrillo, Noah Fleiss.
The portmanteau film is back, certainly in the indie world. The recipe: take a clutch of vignettes, throw them all together in one film, then mix and match the characters from each strand. Los Angeles seems to be the preferred setting. More specifically the sprawling San Fernando Valley. Sundance opening night movie What's Cooking and Paul Thomas Anderson's recent opus Magnolia are two current examples.
Now comes Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her, an all-female compendium which marks the directorial debut of cinematographer Rodrigo Garcia - son of the writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Garcia's screenplay won the Sundance/NHK International Filmmakers Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999 and a year later, with the help of Jon Avnet and Franchise Pictures, the film is completed and premiered at Sundance 2000 last weekend.
It's one of the most impressive female ensemble casts in some years, and the names alone - Glenn Close, Cameron Diaz and Holly Hunter among them - should establish a solid place for the film in the brutal independent marketplace both domestically and around the world. But despite its Sundance win, the screenplay feels under-developed and undernourished; storylines are left unresolved, characters picked up and abandoned randomly. Like life itself, Garcia could say; unfortunately, accomplished first film though it is, that doesn't make for dramatically satisfying cinema.
The film is roughly held together by the apparent suicide of Carmen (Carrillo). The discovery of her body by a police detective (Brenneman) opens the film and she appears walking aimlessly through each story prior to her death. Story One "This Is Dr Keener" features Close as a sexually frustrated middle-aged doctor thrown into disarray when a tarot card reader (Flockhart) deconstructs her personality. "Fantasies About Rebecca" features Hunter as a bank manager having an unfulfilling affair with a married man (Hines) whose self-sufficiency is threatened when she discovers she is pregnant. "Someone For Rose" has Baker as a single mother drawn to a new neighbour - dwarf Danny Woodburn. "Goodnight Lilly, Goodnight Christine" features Flockhart's character again facing up to the imminent death of her lover Golino; and "Love Waits For Cathy" goes back to Brenneman trying to puzzle out the reasons for Carmen's suicide while envying the sexual bravado of her blind sister (Diaz).
It's a pleasure to watch actors like Close and Hunter in action, but aggravating to realise that their characters will leave the screen after 15 or 20 minutes never to return; you yearn for more meat to their segments especially in the weaker middle stories featuring Baker and Flockhart. Ever watchable Brenneman and the adventurous Cameron Diaz close the picture in style.