Decoding Annie Parker—the feature directing debut of Steve Bernstein, cinematographer of The Waterboy, Corky Romano, White Chicks, LiTTLEMAN, and countless other films that aren’t exactly known for their cinematography—is a multi-decade drama painted in the broadest strokes possible. In the scenes set in the early ’70s, the men all have Martin Van Buren sideburns and the women wear floral-print dresses. The onset of the ’80s is signaled by a shot of a yellow Ford Fiesta. A montage indicates the passage of time by dissolving from a Commodore PET to a series of increasingly more sophisticated beige box computers. Over the course of the film, one character goes, Buck Swope-style, from longhaired mod to eyeliner-wearing punk to blazer-clad New Waver. Every period is soundtracked by cheaper-to-license covers of famous songs. Just in case viewers miss something, there are title cards and cutesy narration to help them along.
Much like the Klingon anatomy, which provides every organ with a backup in case of battlefield injury, the movie’s narrative is full of just-in-case redundancies. In the opening minutes, three separate title cards announce the movie’s tone (“My life was a comedy. I just had to learn to laugh. —Annie Parker”), level of realism (the never-convincing “Based on actual events”), and setting (the classic “Toronto, Canada”). In the event that viewers miss that last one or are unfamiliar with the concept of Canada, the movie’s narration periodically reiterates that protagonist Annie Parker (Samantha Morton) lives in Toronto, that she and her family are Canadians, that Canadians enjoy a sport called hockey, that Canada is cold, and that the pool-cleaning business run by Parker’s husband, Paul (Aaron Paul), is inherently funny because Canada is not known for the sort of warm weather that merits outdoor swimming pools or their cleaning.
The movie intercuts scenes from Parker’s life, which include two marriages and two lengthy struggles with cancer, with the story of non-Canadian geneticist Mary-Claire King (Helen Hunt) and her research on the causes of breast cancer. As hackneyed as the movie’s portrayal of Parker’s life might be, it seems subtly shaded in comparison to the King narrative, which mostly consists of people in lab coats saying things aloud that they should already know, using easy-to-follow metaphors while pointing to a conveniently posted chart or diagram. King’s first major scene has her speaking to a college administrator whose every sentence begins with a variation on “So what you mean to say is…” followed by an explanation of King’s research and the general attitude toward the idea of genetic causes for cancer at the time. In the process of trying to make a science story—the decades-long search for the breast-cancer gene—as broadly appealing as possible, the movie ends up pushing out everything that could make such a story compelling.