The Myth of Fingerprints
Director: Bart Freundlich. Cast: Noah Wyle, Julianne Moore, Roy Scheider, Blythe Danner, Michael Vartan, Laurel Holloman, Hope Davis, Arija Bareikis, Brian Kerwin, James LeGros, Christopher Bauer. Screenplay: Bart Freundlich.

The Myth of Fingerprints is a quiet, insinuating drama that at its best moments recalls—doesn't equal, I stress, but recalls—Bergman's Cries and Whispers, though at its worst it recalls the J.Crew catalogue. The large, effective cast play a family of whom Danner and Scheider are the parents and Vartan, Moore, Wyle, and Holloman the brood brought back to the nest for Thanksgiving. None of these six people effuses with joy, though Danner's Lena and Holloman's Leigh seem content with their lives and able to feel warmth and love in their surroundings. Vartan, who arrives with the perpetually frisky Davis (Next Stop, Wonderland, The Daytrippers), seems not quite as enamored of his lover as she is of him; their physical rapport may be a cover-up for the emotional disconnect their awkward moments of conversation suggest. Most in turmoil are ER's Wyle, despondent over a love affair with Bareikis that ended painfully three years before; Moore, who stalks through the house with a bared-claw attitude inflicted equally on everyone; and Scheider, the distant and diminished patriarch who lies at the center of at least one of his children's reasons for unhappiness.

Debut writer-director Bart Freundlich has not broken any ground with this project, which essentially pulls all these disgruntled and winsome people together so they may subsequently pull at one another. The family is conspicuously well-off, and occasionally the resolute tastefulness of the decor and the uniform attractiveness of the cast comes off as a bit smothering. But Freundlich is up to more here than an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, however morose an episode it would constitute. What pleased me most about this picture was that Freundlich and his cinematographer Stephen Kasmierski found exactly the right perspective and manner in which to tell their story. They do not force the story or the characters into any precipitous life changes or epiphanies over the short course of the film.

The fact that some characters (though I will not say which ones) do embark on new routes before the final scene does not feel forced, and in fact is quite pleasing and welcome, because you do not get the sense that the script or the picture is hell-bent on educating or changing these people. Freundlich does not patronize or reprimand his characters, even when he demonstrates frankly the consequences of their selfishness or their small tyrannies. Scenes that could have been great arias of emotion remain faithful to life's example, and are quietly swept under the rug before any outburst may occur. These people and this movie move at their own pace. Meanwhile, the photography maintains a Vermeer-quality distance from everyone and everything. We thus not only have a sense for the hesitant, watchful regard with which the family members and their associated lovers tend to regard one another, but we feel (without any unwanted sense of claustrophobia) the presence and thickness of the air in this rambling, high-ceilinged house. Again, the consistent remove of the photography makes particularly striking those moments when the camera does close in on a face, or discovers a rare moment of intimacy.

Among the able work done by all the performers, I found Danner's maternal warmth, Holloman's spriteliness, and Vartan's deceptive lack of confidence to be the most pleasurable and involving. I was particularly impressed because all of these actors achieve the mood and style Freundlich has prescribed without much obvious acting and without belaboring any of those qualities. Danner is not overly or blindly "motherly," Holloman is impish without being antic, and Vartan gets across both a swagger and an uncertainty that complement one another without standing at odds. As their characters do within the family, these gracefully natural actors provide an agreeably light serenity in an otherwise thorny environment. By contrast, Moore, Scheider, and Wyle have trickier parts because the storylines Freundlich has cooked up for them feel a little too structured and histrionic. Moore in particular goes on a strange odyssey for the missing pages of a book she has read, and re-meets a childhood friend (LeGros) whom she does not remember but who has the answers she wants. It's all a little opaque, but Moore proves nearly as invincible as ever with her palpable, terse iciness.

The most interesting character in some ways, and the one whom the film's entrancing finish brings into sharp emphasis, is Scheider's aloof father. As certainly as he seems to have stoked (or even kindled) his children's melancholy, he obviously faces his own scourges of sadness and may not mean to cause any of the hurt he brings about. I am not sure if Freundlich underwrote this character or if our elliptical view of him will help The Myth of Fingerprints survive in my memory as something even more casually haunting than it already is on first viewing. It may well be that the camera's distant, guarded point of view throughout this picture is meant to be Scheider's perspective. That possibility is most strongly raised at the film's conclusion, but if Freundlich neither confirms nor denies it, the mystery participates in two of The Myth of Fingerprints' most ongoing inquiries. How does each of us occupy space in our families and in our worlds, and through whose eyes do we choose to see and interpret what is around us? B

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