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The Shipping News

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In the hard-bitten fiction of E. Annie Proulx, everything comes at a grave cost, especially happiness. Set in the craggy, harshly beautiful coastal reaches of Newfoundland, Proulx's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Shipping News is about a broken man's search for solace and rebirth in his ancestral home, but it's hardly an occasion for uplift. Moving to a land that tames its inhabitants rather than the other way around, he soon discovers that common tragedies have forged a community of widows and widowers, and that it's not always wise to make inquiries into the past, because every family tree has black roots and gnarled branches. Ideally, the film adaptation would fall into the hands of a contemporary Sam Peckinpah, someone with a feeling for the novel's brutal physicality and morbid strain of humor. So how did it wind up with Lasse Hallström, the director of Chocolat? Packaged and pre-sold as a multiple Oscar-winner by the middlebrow artisans at Miramax, who continue to rub Dame Judi Dench like a lucky rabbit's foot, The Shipping News drills straight to the story's sentimental core, skirting many of the hard truths that made Proulx's book so wrenching and bittersweet. The biggest mistake was casting Kevin Spacey against type as the put-upon hero, an ineffectual slob who doesn't have the will to stand up to his two-timing wife, wildly overplayed by Cate Blanchett. Known for his smug, preening confidence, Spacey looks more and more comfortable as his character inches past catatonia, but the opening scenes are as cardboard-phony as the actor's last failed Oscar grab, Pay It Forward. The film settles down once Spacey and his troubled daughter are dealt a double tragedy. When Aunt Judi Dench comes to deal with the aftermath, she convinces them to follow her back to Newfoundland, where a decrepit seaside home awaits their arrival. Looking for work as a typesetter for a local paper called The Gammy Times, Spacey is instead given a journalist position by editor Scott Glenn, who wants him to report on the weekly car crashes and harbor reports. Meanwhile, Spacey strikes up a friendship with daycare supervisor Julianne Moore, a widow left to raise a mentally disabled son on her own. Working to his strengths, Hallström (My Life As A Dog, What's Eating Gilbert Grape) populates the screen with a supporting cast of gentle, lovable eccentrics, creating a makeshift community that's warm and engaging, though nothing like Proulx's salty collection of characters. Hallström is less assured with the story's darker revelations, which he flits past without allowing them to register, as if he's worried that his sweet tone might somehow go awry. In Proulx's novel, brutality and tenderness are held in a delicate balance, but The Shipping News is too skittish to follow the text.