Off the Chart

Sigourney Weaver conquers new territories in A Map of the World; Isn’t She Great is worthy of Jacqueline Susann’s oeuvre. 

A Map of the World
Directed by

Scott Elliott
First Look Pictures Releasing

Isn’t She Great
Directed by

Andrew Bergman
Universal Pictures 

A Map of the World begins with tragedy—unimaginable tragedy. A harried mom, Alice Goodwin (Sigourney Weaver), leaves her two young daughters and the daughters of her best friend, Theresa (Julianne Moore), in the den of her Wisconsin farmhouse while she goes upstairs to get her swimsuit. There, she stumbles on a relic of her childhood—a map she once drew, as an unhappy girl, of an “ideal world” in which she’d live all by herself. She lingers over it briefly, then goes downstairs to find Theresa’s youngest—a toddler—missing. It doesn’t take her long to discover the child in the pond down the hill. Just long enough.

There’s a context for this terrible event: Alice has already, in her own eyes, fallen from grace. Unlike the radiant Theresa, she hasn’t been able to manage motherhood. Her 5-year-old daughter disdains her, and her 3-year-old exhausts her. She has no support from her husband, Howard (David Strathairn), whose farm work keeps him oblivious to her escalating desperation. The accident is like a punch line to a hideous joke that begins, “Did you hear about the mom who didn’t just mess up her own children?”

No, wait, the punch line is still to come. Alice is an elementary-school nurse, and she has recently vented her rage on Robbie Mackessy (Marc Donato), a bad-tempered boy who’s routinely sent to school sick, and on his trashy single mother, Carol (Chloë Sevigny), whose lack of maternal sense carries a hint of insolence. When investigators show up to inquire about the boy, Alice—guilt-stricken and unhinged over the death of her friend’s daughter—blurts out, “I hurt everybody.” What she doesn’t know is that Robbie has accused her of sexual abuse and that the investigators will interpret her self-flagellating remark as a confession. Alice is handcuffed in front of her daughters and locked away in jail, while her family is viciously ostracized.

Each of these incidents—the drowning and the accusation of abuse—would be ghastly by itself; together, they’re nearly unendurable. A Map of the World is such a bad trip that it’s easy to see why an audience might loathe it. At first, I did. Before I went to see it, I didn’t remember that a year and a half earlier I’d read the novel by Jane Hamilton—or, rather, half-read it. I’d just become a father and didn’t want to know about little girls who in an instant could wander off and die or hapless parents demonized for simply being human. So I skimmed the second part, keeping the book at arm’s length, and promptly “forgot” it.

There were times I wanted to “skim” the movie, too, but I’m glad I stayed with it: That which does not kill us makes us … well, still alive. The director, Scott Elliott, comes from theater (he runs New York’s acclaimed The New Group), and he tells the story plainly, without ornament or editorializing. A Map of the World firmly leads you into the horror, through it, and out the other side, and there’s something consoling about tragedy viewed so unflinchingly, with so much blame spread around that there’s finally no one to blame. The film is occasionally dissonant, but it’s remarkably cleareyed.

The screenplay, by Peter Hedges and Polly Platt, uses some of Hamilton’s plangent prose but improves on her design. The story here is leaner and more shapely: It doesn’t waste time with the minutiae of Alice’s trial or the dullish husband, who narrates sections of the book (a good thing, since Strathairn plays him as a groggy simpleton). The only aspect of the novel I missed was its rumination on Carol Mackessy, who believes her son’s absurd charges against Alice because that’s easier than blaming herself for his damaged psyche. This shameless mother makes a haunting contrast to Alice, the repository of shame, whose impulse is to punish herself for anything beyond her control.

Even as a narrator, Alice is remote, hard-to-read, and Weaver’s acting makes her weirder yet. Is Weaver brilliant or awful? I say brilliant, but she does go off-key. That’s to be expected, since a source of her greatness is that her daring exceeds her skill: She’s most alive when going for broke, hitting wrong notes like mad but ending up in places few actors glimpse. Early on, when Alice explodes at Carol and chases her down the school corridor, it’s hard to interpret Weaver’s theatricality: Is Alice supposed to be nuts or did Elliott misdirect the scene? (Probably both.) Later, however, it’s clear that Alice herself is freakily overdramatizing her emotions. She’s turning herself into a clown, a zany, and Weaver shows you the pleasure her near-madness gives her. When Alice talks to her husband from jail, she’s bright, chatterboxy, determinedly oblivious, almost as if she’s grateful to be there—relieved that it’s someone else’s responsibility to keep the kids from killing themselves. She’s in a smaller, more insulated world now, like the one in her map.

A Map of the World is about the expansion of that solipsistic map to include her husband and children. It’s Alice’s journey out of her own head. Early on, she sits in a tub and regards her bare breasts, emblems of both motherhood and female sexuality, as alien appendages. It takes jail to change her relationship to her body. Taunted by a nervy black woman (Aunjanue Ellis) for being a pervert and a baby killer, Alice provokes a fight and bashes her own head against a table, sending herself to the hospital. When she comes back, she’s different—she seems to have broken down some partition in her brain. Both Weaver’s performance and the film gel in her final, uninflected speech in the courtroom, where her blunt confessions send her lawyer (an exuberantly sleazy Arliss Howard) into a frenzy. Having burned and bashed through her own craziness, Alice is—maybe for the first time in her life—all there.

Weaver is one of the most thrilling actresses in movies, but everything she does comes hard—unnaturally. Julianne Moore is her opposite. In the novel, Hamilton describes the forthright, loving Theresa as having skin that’s “faintly freckled and almost translucent across her cheeks.” Moore looks just like that—you feel as if you’re seeing beneath her skin. “It’s hard for me to see you right now,” she says to Alice, who has come on her by chance in the woods at night. When Alice says, “I know,” Theresa says, “No. You don’t knooow—” and that last word dissolves into a sob that is the thing itself: knowledge so terrible that the word can’t contain it. It hurts to hear that sound, but I’m grateful to Moore—and A Map of the World—for giving the unimaginable a human voice.

S peaking of the unimaginable, I never thought I’d see a movie rottener than Valley of the Dolls, but the new Jacqueline Susann biopic, Isn’t She Great, doesn’t even have the juice of Mark Robson’s 1967 zombiethon. The screenwriter, Paul Rudnick, has turned Michael Korda’s bright memoir of his and Susann’s collaboration (or collusion) on that milestone in the history of trash novels into a camp soap opera populated with half-wits. Nathan Lane plays the hangdog manager mysteriously smitten by fellow showbiz outcast Susann (Bette Midler), who longs only to be famous. When he spies a woman reading Harold Robbins, he has a brainstorm. He plants Susann (now his wife) in front of a typewriter—where, of course, she revolutionizes publishing with a tale of actresses “fucking their way into movies [and] popping pills … tits, ass, and the truth!” Enter a stuck-up editor (David Hyde Pierce), whose WASP reserve clashes with Susann’s Jewish flamboyance—but who learns a thing or two about the universality of crap and the resilience of the human spirit.

What did Rudnick think he was writing? An Almodóvar picture? Almodóvar’s women on the verge have complicated emotions. A satire of ‘60s haut-bourgeois modness? Susann’s appetites were timeless. There’s plenty of material in Korda’s memoir for a creepy-funny portrait of ambition at its most brazen (I still recall the author photo on the back of my grandmother’s hardcover and the line “This is the doll who wrote Valley of the Dolls“), but you’d have to start with a person instead of a series of poses. I doubt that Rudnick’s arch material would work at any tempo, but Andrew Bergman heightens the bad vibes by directing with rabbinical solemnity, as if Isn’tShe Great were a great human drama. Midler plays Susann as a noble vulgarian—a life force who lets everything hang out except her cancer. It used to be that Midler was a life force, but whenever she tries to play one, she looks like she’s floating in formaldehyde.