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With: David Strathairn, Andie MacDowell, Brendan Gleeson, Adrien Brody, Elias Koteas
Written by: Elie Chouraqui, Didier Le Pêcheur, Isabel Ellsen, based on the book by Isabel Ellsen
Directed by: Elie Chouraqui
MPAA Rating: R for strong war violence and gruesome images, pervasive language and brief drug use
Running Time: 122
Date: 03/18/2013

Harrison's Flowers (2002)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Shutter Bugs

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The current deluge of war movies continues with Harrison's Flowers, and though I wish I could report that it's extraordinary in some way, I just can't. In fact, it has far too much in common with Oscar nominee Black Hawk Down -- both good and bad.

Like Black Hawk Down, Harrison's Flowers takes us into the thick of battle with precisely choreographed chaos. It feels like walls and buildings and vehicles are blowing up all around us in 360-degree Sensurround. But when it comes to characters -- our very emotional connection -- the film is laden with half-wits and clich├ęs.

While Black Hawk Down's characters disappeared into the landscape, the Harrison's Flowers characters stick out, gaping logic holes and all. It does, however, take us into the world of photojournalism with a convincing flair.

David Strathairn stars as the title character, a Pulitzer Prize winner who gardens in his spare time (hence the title). He heads off on assignment to Yugoslavia, circa 1991, with the promise he'll be back for his son's birthday.

But news comes that Harrison died in a collapsed building. His wife Sarah (Andie MacDowell), refusing to believe he's dead, rushes off to Yugoslavia to find him, leaving her kids behind to face almost certain orphanhood.

Sarah immediately gets in trouble and, but for the grace of God, barely avoids being raped and shot. Lucky for her, a few American photographers -- friends of her husband's -- happen by the scene and rescue her. They agree to help her find her husband.

The rescuing photographers, played by brilliant character actors Brendan Gleeson (The General) and Adrien Brody (Summer of Sam), are scrappy, underfed anarchists routinely ignored by the Pulitzer committee. Their fingers continue to snap photos even while their faces register the horror of what they're seeing. When another, more highly decorated photog (played by Elias Koteas) joins the little group, rivalry immediately breaks out.

Harrison's Flowers turns into a road-trip movie, with our ragtag little band running into trouble every so often, and with little breaks in between for resting and conversation and/or arguments. Each little episode stretches reality to the breaking point.

It's not enough that Sarah survives her first hour in Yugoslavia unaided. She quickly learns to outwit a sniper and becomes a super trouper (It's all done with a glazed, deer-in-the-headlights performance. Even though MacDowell can be good, the challenges of this role are beyond her range of talent.)

What's worse is the movie's ending. There's a perfectly acceptable conclusion to this story, but it's presented in such a strange, awkward way, you leave shaking your head. At the same time, viewers may alternately read Harrison's Flowers as a tribute to hero journalists like Daniel Pearl, or as an insult to their memory.

And though the film's populated with thin, comic-book characters, the horrors presented by director Elie Chouraqui are real. We witness from the point of view of an objective journalist the gruesome effects of "ethnic cleansing," and it's hard not to be moved and affected in some way.

Like Black Hawk Down, Harrison's Flowers left me with mixed feelings. Will people want to experience the horrors of war without interesting characters? Will their patriotism be called into question if they don't?

There's one thing to be sure about: Harrison's Flowers could have been better.

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