Leigh Low

Georgia has been racking up the raves, and I wish I could more wholeheartedly join in. There's no disputing that it has some forceful, occasionally even harrowing, passages, or that the performances of its lead actresses are very fine at times. But there's something too self-assured about the film--the central character is a self-destructive alcoholic who is able to put those who care for her through misery because they find her so compelling. That's roughly what the film does to us.

The title refers neither to the setting (which is Washington state) nor to the central character, but to the major supporting character. Georgia Flood (Mare Winningham) is the older sister of Sadie (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Both are professional singers--or, rather, Georgia is a singer, a successful and critically lauded folk thrush who plays to sold-out crowds. Sadie, on the other hand, is a caterwauling wanna-be, backing up low-rent blues vocalists or shrieking along with cover bands in bars, between stints as a hotel maid or a plain old, falling-down drunk.

To add insult to Sadie's injury, Georgia, who is happily married with a big home and lovely kids, doesn't even seem to care much about the fame that Sadie so craves. It's like a small-scale version of the musical conflict in Amadeus--casual brilliance as an affront to desperate mediocrity. However, it's framed here not in terms of high religious rhetoric, but of emotional psychodrama, and it has a familial dimension that makes it all the more harsh and agonizing.

The plot line of Georgia ambles along slowly through a variety of situations--Sadie getting a job with a bar band, Sadie marrying a goodhearted young man (Max Perlich), Georgia getting Sadie her big chance to sing at an AIDS benefit, Sadie at last going into rehab. The point, again and again, is that Sadie screws up every shot she's given at success or happiness or health or anything else. As the film grinds on and on, the dramatic question becomes: Will she maintain her streak?

Georgia's large, supportive husband (Ted Levine) gazes longingly at Sadie; her combination of sexuality and waiflike vulnerability moves him. He honestly, even paternally, wishes her well; he probably also can empathize with how inadequate she feels standing next to Georgia. For the film to work the way it's supposed to--and, for many, evidently, it does--we should share in the urgency of these feelings. Everyone knows what it's like to care about someone whose life is a train wreck through no one's fault but his or her own. But Sadie has one shortcoming too many.

If, within her own style, she was a serious artist but was also a drunk, or if she was kidding herself about music but was not a drunk, the story would have some tension. But she's a drunk whose attempts at music are an embarrassment to herself and those who love her. The writing is on Sadie's wall from the start, and the point that she's hopeless is made too early and too often. After a while, even though the film made me care about her, I became as exhausted by her company as Georgia was.

The director, Ulu Grosbard--whose far better 1981 film True Confessions concerned brothers in conflict--has a refreshingly naturalistic touch. But he lets individual scenes and Georgia in general grind on far too long. Grosbard and the screenwriter, Barbara Turner (Leigh's mother), see the film as a showcase for Leigh, who never seems to tire of playing these soul-wounded little match girls (though her sharpest, most flawless work may have been her pure, fast-talking artifice in The Hudsucker Proxy).

Grosbard's pokey approach here is intended to give us plenty of time to admire Leigh--he presumptuously romanticizes her bare, rag-doll limbs, her eye shadow that would startle an Egyptian raccoon, the mischievous smirk that covers her despair. She's strong, all right, but Grosbard throws the performance at us too hard, and, in the end, it was Winningham's plain, put-upon Georgia that I wanted to know better.

The title of the film is presumably intended to suggest the ideal to which Sadie futilely aspires. It's the state, so to speak, which an old sweet song puts on Sadie's mind. But in a role that could have come off like a pious, irritating Miss Thang, Winningham is gently beautiful. As the story goes on, she makes you see what Georgia's stoic, all-business manner is covering--that she's crazier about Sadie, and aches more at her plight, than anyone. I wanted the focus to shift to Georgia--her internal pain was more fascinating to me than Sadie's thrashing around. The title was right all along.

Directed by
Ulu Grosbard; with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mare Winningham, MaxPerlich, JohnDoe, TedLevine, JohnC.Reilly, TomBower andJimmy Witherspoon.

Rated

 
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