"Things We Lost in the Fire" is akin to a high-wire act where the entertainers keep falling off every time they appear to be getting into a comfortable groove. In this film's case, it is not the onscreen performers who stumbleat least, not oftenbut the behind-the-camera team of director Susanne Bier (hailing from Denmark, making her English-language debut) and novice screenwriter Allan Loeb. In tackling a relatively uneventful story that more or less can be boiled down to a coping-with-death soaper mixed with a drug-addiction drama, Bier and Loeb cannot resist going the heavy-handed route following each instance of emotional validity. For the viewer, then, the outcome feels oddly aloof and much ado about nothing.
When her beloved husband, Brian (David Duchovny), pops out to get ice cream for the family and is murdered before he can make it back home, Audrey Burke's (Halle Berry) world is suddenly shattered. Left to explain what has happened to her two fatherless children, 10-year-old Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and 6-year-old Dory (Micah Berry), Audrey naturally struggles as she attempts to care for them even as she is unable to come to grips herself with the tragedy. Enter Brian's lifelong best friend, Jerry Sunborne (Benicio Del Toro), a former lawyer whose life has been destroyed by his heroin addiction. When everyone else deserted him, Brian was the one steadfast person in his life. Now that he is gone, Jerry makes a valiant attempt to turn things around. In need of some help around the house and spurred on by a renewed faith in him when money shows up that she always assumed he stole, Audrey invites Jerry to move into the empty garage next door. It's an unorthodox living arrangement and a rash decision, one that Audrey begins to regret as her bitterness grows the more she watches Jerry bond with Harper and Dory.
"Things We Lost in the Fire" is light on plot, which wouldn't be a problem if the mildly rote characters held more depth than they do. For the first half-hour, director Susanne Bier intriguingly experiments with telling the story out of chronological order, with events from separate time periods taking place concurrently. Once Brian is killed, the different threads conjoin and the narrative adopts a more conventional approach. From here, the film becomes episodic, unremittingly morose, and rather uninspiring, with so many extreme close-ups of dark eyeballs that they could almost be confused for outtakes from "The Ring
It is obvious that the kids will begin to like Jerry once he moves in with them, though their dialogue exchanges frequently are too scripted to sound natural. "Do you ever feel like you're in a movie...a sad one?" Harper improbably asks him in one scene. It is equally obvious that a drug relapse is bound to eventually happen, put his relationship with his new sort-of family into jeopardy. What isn't as predictable is Audrey's punishing attitude toward her new houseguest, figuratively biting Jerry's head off every chance she gets. In one scene, she is telling him point-blank that he should have been the one that died, and in the next scene she is inviting him into her bedroom to cuddle so she can fall asleep. Audrey's schizophrenic actions can be mostly forgiven since she is still in the grieving process, but they still do her no favors as she simultaneously tries to warm up to the audience. Thankfully, any romance between these two lost souls is kept under wraps and only vaguely suggested. That is how it should be.
Halle Berry (2007's "Perfect Stranger
") nets top billing as the broken Audrey, only partly succeeding at staying strong for her children, but the intense-eyed Benicio Del Toro (2005's "Sin City
") gets the juicier role as Jerry. Berry overdoes the sad looks and misses the mark when she is called upon to break down crying, but is stronger and in control of the quieter moments. By contrast, Del Toro is utterly convincing from start to finish, finding the nuances within a good guy in a bad spot, trying to get straight but always one or two stresses away from going back to his old habits. As Harper, Alexis Llewellyn (2004's "The Chronicles of Riddick
") is a young talent to watch out for; her serious performance is free of all things sickeningly precocious. And in a small but excellent turn, Alison Lohman (2006's "Flicka
") breathes life into the hopeful Kelly, a former addict whose past wounds and experiences allow her to empathize, in different ways, with both Jerry and Audrey.
"Things We Lost in the Fire," a title referring to the material possessions the Burkes once lost in a garage blaze, emphasizes the point that the things we own are expendable and the people in our lives are what is important above all else. It's a simplistic, albeit useful, message that ultimately services a film that leaves the viewer with a neither-here-nor-there response. There are intimate and touching scenes, none more than a late dinner table get-together where Kelly questions everyone on the little things that made Brian who he was, but the picture just doesn't add up to much in the long run. It's a more accurate and less superficial treatment of subject matter similarly covered in 2007's "Catch and Release
," and that is the best that can be said of it. "Things We Lost in the Fire" is earnest, but perhaps too earnest for its own good. When someone smiles, it's a disconcerting cause for celebration.