Forty Shades of Blue

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Starring Rip Torn, Dina Korzun, and Darren E. Burrows. Unrated. Plays Monday to Wednesday, March 6 to 8, and Saturday and Sunday, March 11 and 12, at the Vancity Theatre

I'd like to join the chorus of critics hailing the virtues of Forty Shades of Blue, which won the grand jury prize at last year's Sundance Film Festival. Unfortunately, the relentlessly downbeat movie is more admirable than good, and its terminally conflicted characters are not really worth knowing.

Rip Torn, doing his patented crankster routine, stars as Alan James, a Memphis record producer and sometime hit songwriter who is not going gentle into that good night. When we meet him, there's a local tribute happening, although nobody seems to like the guy all that much. He's demonstrably not loved by Laura (cast standout Dina Korzun), whose perfectly attended beauty is marred only by the utter lack of any expression on her face.

A Russian translator inarticulate in all languages-her casually promiscuous sexuality is only slightly more expressive than that of an inflatable doll-she has borne her "saviour" a small son. In return, she gets to putter around his grotesque Memphis mansion while he drinks or disappears with good ol' boys and, sometimes, gals. Into this uneasy stasis steps older son Michael, played by Darren E. Burrows, whom we knew as Ed Chigliak, the sullen cinephile on Northern Exposure. (If the series had survived into the DVD era, his character would have grown truly insufferable.)

It's clear that Michael, now a college teacher and deeply blocked writer in L.A., was deserted by his dad and now he's at least subconsciously wanting to declaw the lion in winter. What better way than to go after his common-law wife? These two passive people form a common front, but it's more like a hostile takeover than a love affair. And, truth be told, they are just not interesting enough to care about.

In particular, Burrows is too recessive an actor to register much more than pinched antagonism. But the fault really lies with director Ira Sachs, who has said that he based this portrait on aspects of his own Memphis daddy. At every turn, working from a script he wrote with composer Michael Rohatyn, he settles for atmosphere and the suggestion of complexity rather than anything dramatically satisfying. Every time the characters are about to communicate, as when the visiting son makes a speech on the old man's birthday, the words come out feeble and dull. Sachs can chalk this flatness up to the limitations of his character, but in the atypically astute words of Alan James, "In this life, you have to do." And this movie doesn't.