[Christianity Today Movies, Dec 7, 2007]
Movies are great at sweeping an audience up into intense emotions and experiences; even when a plot is flimsy, a good roller-coaster ride can be worth the price of admission. It’s not so easy to make a movie about something that isn’t happening. In “Grace is Gone,” what doesn’t happen (at least not for a very long time) is a dad breaking the news to his daughters that their mom is dead. We watch him not tell them in the living room, in the car, in restaurants, in motels, at an amusement park – he doesn’t tell them all the way from the upper Midwest to Florida. He grimaces and weeps, he calls his own answering machine to hear Grace’s recorded voice, but he can’t bring himself to get it out to the girls. The whole movie is like being stuck in bed with a cold.
As the story opens Stanley Phillips is a manager at a big-box Home Store, and his wife, Grace, is a sergeant stationed in Iraq. After a couple of brief set-up scenes we see him answer the door one morning to find a military officer and a chaplain on the doorstep. Comprehension and denial cascade simultaneously down his face. When the officer asks, “May we come in, sir?,” the stunned man breathes “No”.
When 12-year-old Heidi and 8-year-old Dawn get home from school, Stanley gathers them in the living room and attempts to break the news, but the words stick in his throat. One procrastination leads to another, and before long he’s impulsively decided to treat them to a trip to a Florida theme park. The biggest part of the movie concerns that journey, the days and nights on the road, as Stanley wrestles with his emotions.
This is an enormous weight for an actor to carry. Not much occurs by means of dialogue; the work of conveying the story depends almost entirely on the space bounded by Cusack’s chin, forehead, and ears. He’s good, in fact very good, but it’s not really that interesting to watch, because Stanley’s character is not drawn with any depth, and what there is doesn’t provoke sympathy. Even before the news of Grace’s death, Stanley appears listless and cold, emotionally distant, and disposed to deal with his daughters by barking orders. Despite Cusack’s admirable work in conveying Stanley’s misery, the Stanley he has to work with is just not an interesting guy in the first place.
Much has been made of the political intent of the film, and whether it’s recognizably anti-war. It sounds like that’s what Cusack hoped; as he told USA Today, “I didn’t want to look back and say during this time … that I didn’t do anything. At least I tried to enter into the debate and not stand passive.” But the movie doesn’t debate anything. Stanley’s brother John makes some stereotypical anti-war comments, but he’s presented as a sponge and a loser who, at 32, is living with his mom and still thinking about going to grad school. His opinions sound parroted. Stanley, on the other hand, represents a view of military service as an honor and something to be desired, quite apart from any particular war. John tells Heidi that Stanley wanted so much to be a soldier that he cheated on the eye exam to get in. Such patriotic sentiments aren’t often heard anymore, when military service is more likely to be seen as simply a career choice.
O’Keefe and Bednarczyk are excellent as Stanley’s daughters. Bednarczyk’s Dawn brightens the entire film, and without her bumptious good humor it would have risked complete stagnation. O’Keefe’s Heidi is muted and vigilant, even in the opening scenes, and it’s harder to visualize just how she fitted into the intact family. Though this is an excellent performance, such a character does nothing to alleviate the movie’s sluggishness.
And, in terms of artistic execution, the film is below par. The colors are harsh and the music often inappropriate or clichéd (when dad finally does tell the girls, his voice fades and we hear some plinking of piano keys). When we look out the car windshield, the rear view mirror has been clumsily replaced by a black silhouette of a mirror. When they arrive at “Enchanted Gardens,” the theme park’s sign has an unnatural CGI look to it, and its mascot, a featureless rabbit, looks almost ominous. (In the back of my mind I heard the Veggie Tales ditty: “The bunny, the bunny, I love the bunny.”) Overall, John Cusack deserves high praise for his terrific work as an emotionally cold man suddenly devastated by grief—but this effort is expended on a vehicle that has little going for it in the first place. Viewers may go in thinking “Oscar,” but they’re likely to come out thinking “Afterschool Special.”