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The 119 minutes I lost in the fire

By Sam Potter

“Things We Lost in the Fire”ParamountDirected by Susanne BierWritten by Allan LoebStarring Halle Berry, Benicio Del Toro, David Duchovny and Alison LohmanRated R/119 minutesTwo out of four stars

I’m developing an intuition about fall movies. When I first caught glimpse of “Things We Lost in the Fire,” it looked like solid Oscar bait. Produced by Sam Mendes (director of “American Beauty” and “Road To Perdition”), starring Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro and hailed as the English-language debut of much heralded Dutch director Susanne Bier, the film looked primed to revitalize Berry’s floundering post-Oscar career and offer a meaty, dramatic treat. However, after seeing the trailer, it was hard to really see any sense of mystery, suspense or wonder as to what might happen.

Unfortunately for Bier, all the artistic flair, mournful mugging and close-ups of pupils can’t make up for something necessary in a drama: a solid script. The film reeks of a Lifetime movie featuring more highly paid actors, and apparently, an interesting story was the first thing to be consumed by the flames.

“Things We Lost in the Fire” stars David Duchovny and Halle Berry as Steven and Audrey Burke, a pair of well-to-do suburbanites who, despite the typical petty things that get between all couples, have it pretty much made. Steven’s best friend, Jerry, is a failed-lawyer-turned-heroine-addict on whom Steven checks up frequently. Jerry clings to Steven because he’s the only person who hasn’t given up on him. Because of to Jerry’s personal choices, Steven keeps a distance between his friend and his family.

However, the two collide when Steven is killed trying to rescue a woman from her physically abusive husband. Audrey tracks down Jerry, who is working as a janitor at a rehab clinic, and offers him a room at their home. The move appears to have a profoundly positive effect on Jerry — he bonds with the Burke children, befriends a neighbor who hooks Jerry up with a job in real estate and manages to stay clean.

Audrey, on the other hand, experiences emotions so difficult and complex she doesn’t know how to begin to cope with them. In one of the film’s best scenes, she asks Jerry to lie down next to her in bed and caress her earlobe, a ritual Steven did that always brought her comfort.

What transpires afterwards leads the two down difficult and harrowing roads that ultimately force them to come to grips with their stagnant lives. Suffice it to say, the dramatic conclusion doesn’t amount to the most shocking or gripping of revelations. This film is basically a character study and doesn’t seem too concerned with surprise, irony or instilling a curiosity in its audience as to how the events will be resolved.

Films about loss are difficult to convincingly pull off, especially on the heels of films that have tackled similar material so adeptly, such as “In the Bedroom.” Both Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro have been in films similar, yet much better, albeit more histrionic (“Monster’s Ball,” “21 Grams”).

One pleasant aspect to Bier’s approach is that she doesn’t attempt to force drama here. No forced revenge, no incredibly ironic coincidences in story lines, no forced symbolism or irony. She shoots the film with handheld cameras, and production-wise, it all seems quite believable and realistic.

The performances, on the other hand, seem tired. Both of the leads are treading extremely familiar territory, and it shows. Berry in particular seems to lack the vulnerability and everydayness necessary to really bring Audrey’s character home. She seems too confident, too snappily dressed and too together to confess to Jerry that she really wants to try heroin as a means of escape. Allan Loeb’s script focuses too little on Audrey for us to get to know her other than as Steven’s arm candy.

Del Toro’s Jerry seems not too far removed from the character he played in “21 Grams” — the penitent, guilt-ridden survivor, though there is a refreshing levity and realism here. It’s a nice performance but not his best.

The problem: junkies are horrible movie characters. They’re pathetic, annoying and dramatically inert as they always fall back into predictable patterns and fail to progress (ahem…”Half Nelson,” anyone?).

“Things We Lost in the Fire” ultimately gives us a watered-down collection of snapshots of the feelings one goes through with loss, but it all feels too familiar.

Competently done…if only it had something new to say.

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