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A woman's descent, sadly told

No chuckles in 'The House of Mirth'

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In this story:

Lovely, yet lacking

Weak acting


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(CNN) -- If you can make it through "The House of Mirth" without falling into a deep depression, you have heroic reserves of optimism.

Writer-director Terence Davies' occasionally tedious adaptation of Edith Wharton's forlorn novel just keeps coming at you, like Rasputin on a handful of downers. There's so much unmitigated misery to contend with that the story nearly turns comical. At the very least, Wharton sure could title 'em.

Gillian Anderson (of TV's "The X-Files") plays Lily Bart, a turn-of-the-century New York socialite whose inability to properly handle money or discreetly conduct personal relationships leaves her banished to the hoi polloi.

Lily is a radiant woman who speaks with the proper mixture of lilting bon mots and knowing sarcasm, but her grace masks a true lack of self-assurance. Her heart is set on a dashing bachelor named Lawrence Selden (the badly miscast Eric Stoltz), even though he doesn't want to get married.

Lily's search for a husband eventually creates the illusion that she's had an affair with Gus Trenor (Dan Aykroyd, miscast by definition), a rich entrepreneur who calls in a personal loan for $9,000 when she refuses to sleep with him. Most of the movie consists of Lily, who usually looks ravishing despite her supposed despair, gently assuring people that, yes, she really is broke, and needs a place to rest her weary bones.

The great lesson she learns is that you can't trust anybody simply to be nice to you; they have to trash you in one form or another to maintain their standing in the community.

Lovely, yet lacking

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There's a reason why these productions, with their minute period detail and antiquated social rituals, are often called Merchant Ivory-type films. Ismail Merchant and James Ivory -- they produced and directed "Howard's End" (1992) and "The Remains of the Day" (1993), among many others -- manage the task with grace and wit, and they have the financial backing to do it in the necessary high style. If so much of your characters' existence is predicated on their having ungodly amounts of money to throw around like so much confetti, you'd better make sure that the movie itself looks opulent.

What's available for your perusal in "The House of Mirth" is definitely beautiful. There just isn't enough of it to keep you immersed in the story. You begin to notice that, instead of shots of enormous crowds scurrying about, you only see a few people, but hear lots of others just beyond the edge of the frame.

Davies is also too tight-laced with his camera to generate a sense of spectacle. "Sweep" sometimes calls for a literally sweeping camera, not one that's nailed to the floor while people sit around sipping tea. This film only hints at what you're primed to see; you seldom receive a well-choreographed blast of it.

Weak acting

The casting is also strange. Anderson is often quite touching as a character who's so morose and self-defeating, you can't help but get tired of her after a while. At one point, Lily actually declares, "I have tried hard. But life is difficult, and I am a useless person." You can say that again.

Anderson has the right look, though, and her "X-Files"-bred stoicism adds power to Lily's downfall. But a lot of her fellow performers, regardless of how good they may have been in the past, look and sound exactly like actors playing dress-up.

This is the kind of story where the protagonist continually bumps into people on the street, or at the train station, so nobody outside of Anderson gets a chance to develop a full-fledged persona. Anthony LaPaglia is serviceable as a would-be fiance to Lily, and Laura Linney is equally so-so as one of her main adversaries.

The same can't be said of Aykroyd and Stoltz, both of whom seem more like they're appearing on an episode of "Friends." The meticulously structured sentences that the upper class spews in these pictures sound especially absurd when issued by Stoltz. Besides, it's difficult to tell what Lily sees in such a smug little creep.

If you absolutely must watch every costume drama in which a woman of means wants to marry the wrong person, is forced to marry the wrong person, or is in danger of losing her unearned money, pick up "The House of Mirth" when it comes out on video. It says a lot about the production's shortcomings that you won't miss the big screen.

There's no sex in "The House of Mirth," and nobody invents the F-word. It all seems strangely cramped; promotional straitjackets might be a nice tie-in. No pun intended. Rated PG. 135 sometimes arduous minutes.



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