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Review: 'North Country': Oscar no, pompous yes

Movie tries so hard to be important it forgets about being good

By Paul Clinton
For CNN.com

North Country
Charlize Theron, as Josey Aimes, addresses a room of mine workers in "North Country."

FACT BOX

'North Country'

Starring: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sissy Spacek, Woody Harrelson

Directed by: Niki Caro

Written by: Michael Seitzman

Studio: Warner Bros.

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Review
Sexual Harassment
Movies

(CNN) -- Around this time of year -- like a visit from the flu bug -- Hollywood is bitten by a severe case of B.O.B, "Blatant Oscar Bid." "North Country" is one of this year's first full-blown cases.

Three Oscar winners are in the cast just to help make the point. Charlize Theron stars as Josey Aimes, a poverty-ridden single mother escaping an abusive relationship who becomes an unlikely activist against a male dominated mining company.

Sissy Spacek plays her emotionally conflicted mother, and Frances McDormand gives a great turn as her friend, Glory, another female miner, who is responsible for helping Josey get her job in the first place.

Attempting to follow in the steps of "Silkwood," Norma Rae," and "Erin Brockovich," "North Country" carries its importance like a tattered flag. It never lets you forget that this is a meaningful film about an important subject.

This movie -- very, very, very loosely based on a true story -- tells the tale of a group women of who broke the status quo by working as iron miners in the remote, male-dominated world of northern Minnesota's Iron Range.

The movie is framed by scenes in a courtroom as Josey brings a class action suit against the mine for sexual harassment. The story then returns to the courtroom throughout the film in order to underscore what is happening at the mine.

Harassment

It's the 1980s and Josey, her young daughter and adolescent son have fled from her abusive husband. They end up at her parents' house in the town where she grew up.

Her father, played by Richard Jenkins ("Six Feet Under"), works at the local mine and is less than pleased to see his daughter. Her mother, played by Spacek, is more supportive.

Josey is working a dead-end job in a beauty parlor when she's convinced by Glory -- over her parents' strong objections -- to take a job at the local iron mine. The sexual harassment begins immediately, ranging from adolescent locker room pranks to attempted rape.

Soon Josey seeks out the help of a local man, Bill White (Woody Harrelson), a lawyer who has given up practicing law after a successful, but unfulfilling, career in New York City.

He takes her case not because of its merits, but for the challenge (and notoriety): It would be the first sexual harassment class action suit in history against a major corporation, and would therefore change the course of how women are treated in the workplace.

But in order to have a class action suit there must be three complaints, and none of the other women -- including Glory -- are willing to rock the boat. They desperately want Josey to go along to get along, and therefore leave her hanging out to dry.

Now the film degenerates into one overwrought and poorly written scene after another. The harassment increases. The courtroom scenes become longer and longer. The mining company's lawyer -- a single token woman without another attorney in sight for the defense -- constantly reminds the company's CEO that if any one else joins the case, all is lost.

Finally, the movie gets to its dramatic courtroom showdown -- and loses whatever credibility it had.

Without revealing too much, a sudden, left-field revelation changes the entire case and the once-alone Josey now has a cheering section. The turn of events is so patently false and trite I wanted to throw my notebook at the screen. Even Frank Capra would have been embarrassed.

Yes, the acting is excellent (despite Michael Seitzman's clichéd dialogue), and Niki Caro's direction straightforwardly captures the bleakness of the living and working conditions suffered by the miners. The talent offered by the film is obvious.

But all the talent in the world is no excuse for a movie essentially designed as Oscar bait. If you want to see a fine film about working-class laborers taking on the big boys, try "Norma Rae." If you want to see good performances and cinematography wasted in a mediocre movie, that would be "North Country."

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