'Fire' follows a winding road to recovery
Were there such a thing as a low-carb melodrama, "Things We Lost in the Fire" would be it - all the tears, half the guilt. The movie gives us Halle Berry as a recent widow named Audrey and Benicio Del Toro as Jerry, a heroin addict and her late husband's best friend. She invites him to join her and her two children in their gorgeous, interracial Seattle home.
Her goodness seems to be a tribute to her beatific husband, Brian (David Duchovny), who was shot dead while saving a woman from an abusive man and who never stopped caring for his strung-out friend, even over his wife's irate objections. (Duchovny, in a passive mood we're supposed to find saintly, is very present in the film's delicately edited first third, courtesy of flashbacks.) Since Audrey has no ostensible career and, we are told, enough money to prevent her from settling on one, she has plenty of time to help rehab Jerry.
The relationship is supposed to be mutually beneficial. She saves him from himself. She and her kids are saved from their grief, which is more or less what happens. That's it. The script, by Allan Loeb, comes up with fights for these two to get into and cute conversations for them to have with Audrey's kids, a 10-year-old girl (Alexis Llewellyn) and 6-year-old boy (Micah Berry) whose unruly curls are meant to make them adorable.
Jerry is the only character with human flaws, and in a movie perfect people tend to be boring. Wherever the movie can turn psychologically complex with Jerry as a replacement father, or sexually interesting, with him as replacement lover, it stays functionally sane. And as a level-headed movie about broken adults, there's only so much grace and refinement the film's director, Susanne Bier, the skilled Dane making her first Hollywood movie, can apply without the visual eloquence leaving the whole thing feeling a little hollow.
The movie is ultimately a junkie's tale. Jerry attends Narconon meetings, where Alison Lohman pops up as an ex-user, and fights to stay clean, which allows Del Toro to act up the sort of squall you expect from Berry, who doesn't act up at all. Audrey is an incomplete character. Even before Brian's death, her world is monochromatic. The film is decorated with interesting faces and personalities - John Carroll Lynch plays a family friend, Omar Benson Miller and Paula Newsome play her brother and sister. But the movie doesn't show her leaning on them for more than functional support. You're barely convinced of the relationships.
Berry gives Audrey her usual combination of strength and need. But she's always best at negative extremes - sadness, anger, hurt, misery, desperation. She has flashes of anger, and she gets to do her crying howl, which has become a kind of anticipated movie event, like the death spiral in figure skating or half of a Jerry Bruckheimer production blowing up in the last 20 minutes. But the movie for her is all emotional middle.
Bier does provide more than enough close-ups to appreciate, once again, how a good performance is often there in the voice and the face. Berry needs her thunderstorm acting because her flawless looks don't always tell a terribly compelling story. When a movie is not driven by theatrics, she seems utterly neutral. On the other hand, Del Toro's unmade bed of a face, with its rough patches, lumps, and wrinkles, is always something to see, especially here. It's alive even when he looks half dead.