Theatrical Bravura in Contemporary Chekhov Update Makes for Uneven Viewing Experience
When I think about it, there have been quite a few cinematic variations on Anton Chekhov's classic "The Three Sisters" from Woody Allen's austere "Interiors" to Diane Keaton's execrable "Hanging Up". Playwright-turned-screenwriter Richard Alfieri provides a more literal adaptation by updating the original play to the present and resetting it primarily in a Manhattan faculty lounge on the Upper West Side. Longtime TV director Arthur Allan Seidelman guides an impressive ensemble of actors in the proceedings, but the result unfortunately feels like a stagy TV-movie brimming with overripe theatrics. The abundance of characters and multi-layered set-up seem to make the actors chew the scenery excessively, though a few still make indelible impressions.
The structure and themes of the Chekhov play remain the same. The plot focuses on the four Prior siblings - Marcia, Olga, Irene and Andrew - and their clashing destinies and unraveling secrets furnish the drama as they get together for Irene's 22nd birthday party. Maria is the beautiful, vitriolic older sister unhappily married to a passive psychology professor while embarking on a torrid affair with Vincent, their father's former teaching assistant who has come unexpectedly for a visit. Irene is the buttoned-up middle sister, an English literature professor and by default the family conciliator. Irene is the protected baby sister whose sunny disposition masks deeper insecurities that lead to a crystal-meth overdose. Andrew is the weak, emasculated brother who has brought home Nancy, his slatternly fiancée, whom his sisters, especially Marcia, despise. There are others who encircle the family like a vise with their own histrionics - kindly department head Dr. Chebrin and dueling professors Gary Sokol and David Turzin, both in love with Irene and seething with rage against each other.
There are plenty of fireworks, but with so many characters to track, Seidelman produces a truncated flow to the story while making the movie itself feel overlong. The performances are all over the map, though each seems to have at least one bravura set piece. As she proves in David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence", Maria Bello is one of the strongest actresses on screen today and makes Marcia a memorably fiery character, especially as she lays into the vulgar Nancy or succumbs to Vincent's ardent attention. As Irene, the underused Mary Stuart Masterson brings a coiled sense of repression that makes the contrast between her and Marcia biting and poignant. Less interesting is Erika Christensen, who makes Irene sweetly vulnerable but cannot transcend the trite arc of her character. Chris O'Donnell barely registers as the romantically obsessive David, but Eric McCormack - who will have a challenge overcoming his pervasive Will Truman persona - is all sarcastic blather as Gary until he manages to convey the character's pathetic jealousy.
Elizabeth Banks - memorable as the lusty bookstore clerk in "The 40-Year Old Virgin" - makes the vulgarity of Nancy palpable if rather obvious with a wavering Bronx accent, while Alessandro Nivola - equally memorable as the pampered rock star in "Laurel Canyon" - is effectively passive as Andrew. Tony Goldwyn seems oddly stilted as Vincent, making him a dispassionate match for Marcia's voracious self-destruction. At times, the dialogue is insightful with clever zingers. At other times, it sounds laughably mannered, and the general dysfunctional situation gets wearing over time. A few cathartic moments shine through, especially toward the end when Marcia and Olga come to terms with each other. The DVD is short on extras - just the original trailer and an overly earnest commentary from Seidelman and Alfieri.
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