written and directed by John Sayles
with Edie Falco, Timothy Hutton, Angela Bassett, and Alan King
opens July 12 at Harvard Exit
If, somewhere in the dorms of Harvard or M.I.T., there's a drinking game brainy students play while watching John Sayles films, it's probably to do a shot at every mention of the word "zoning." Now land use may sound dull, and Sayles' movies can sometimes feel like homework, but Sunshine State is surprisingly accessible and congenial for a picture fundamentally about real-estate development.
Be warned, however, that while the sweeping, well-acted, ensemble-cast drama takes place in Florida, it's set on the sleepy north coast—far from the thongs of South Beach and Carl Hiassen crazies of Miami. On this contested turf, where evil developers circle like "buzzards," each plat has a story to tell, as does each family residing upon it.
History haunts two landowning clans in Sunshine as they cope with present-day upheaval. All that's left of the once proud, prosperous Stokes family is Desiree (Angela Bassett) and her mother (Mary Alice). Now married to a Boston doctor, the prodigal daughter returns after 25 years to her homestead in the all-black enclave of Lincoln Beach (being eyed by greedy developers). Nearby in white Delrona Beach, greedy developers also covet the dilapidated family-owned motel run by Marly Temple (The Sopranos' excellent Edie Falco). Her father (The Waltons' Ralph Waite) is retired, blind, and diabetic; her mother (Jane Alexander) is quite literally a drama queen, engrossed in her community theater company.
Are you clear about the greedy developers? Sayles is, too, but his film is saved from pedantry by some welcome laughs: His characters occasionally smile and have sex; they even play golf! (Although, it must be noted, the linksters mainly function as a Greek chorus—led by Alan King—that periodically appears to opine upon the past.) Marly's clown of an ex-husband (Richard Edson) gets the biggest hoot while dressed in Civil War garb at a tourist attraction, telling her straight-facedly, "You can't live in the past." Indeed, everyone in Sunshine labors under the weight of history, lending to the film's somewhat portentous quality.
Given the ambitiously sprawling, overlapping stories and characters of Sunshine, you could call it typically Sayles- esque, as Robert Altman is Altmanesque. What's the difference? Sayles is more writer than director; in traditional novelistic fashion, he has serious ideas to get across. (And at today's dumbed-down multiplex, many may share his concern for the cost of McMansions and unfettered growth.) In love with his characters, Altman creates more poetry and humor on a scene-by-scene basis, while Sayles is a prose artist who carefully constructs the whole before its parts.
Yet, as in Gosford Park, supporting players can get lost in Sunshine's shuffle. You want to see more of sneaky developer Miguel Ferrer, more of perky/frazzled Chamber of Commerce type Mary Steenburgen, more of Edson. Wait—there he is again, now dressed as a parade-float pirate with a stuffed parrot on his shoulder, dutifully snarling at tourists, "A curse on the lot of you!"
Such flashes of rueful wit tinge Sunshine's basic pessimism about the inexorability of land development. Resisting easy tokenism, Sayles puts a cell-phone-wielding Seminole at the wheel of a bulldozer. Far from revering her old family homestead, Marly can't wait to leave. Stirred from her soul-numbing routine of boozing and carousing by an affair with a handsome visiting landscape architect (Timothy Hutton), she hopes only to sell the hated motel and escape.
Would that it were it so simple. Even as the swamps are about to be filled in to create gated golf-course communities for the rich, Sayles suggests how the land and its history still have the power to shape the lives of those of us walking blithely upon it.