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With: Billy Crudup, Jennifer Connelly, Molly Parker, Janet McTeer, Paul Hipp, Sandra Oh, Hal Holbrook, Lawrence Dane
Written by: Robert Dillon, based on a novel by Scott Spencer
Directed by: Keith Gordon
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality and language
Running Time: 105
Date: 01/22/2000

Waking the Dead (2000)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Keith Gordon's new movie Waking the Dead left me a little baffled. On the one hand, there seems to be some genuine emotional pull between the hero Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup) and the object of his affection Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly). But on the other hand, the story is so confused and takes so long to get seemingly nowhere, that we don't know why the movie was made in the first place.

It's the early 1970's and Fielding is an up-and-coming American politician while Sarah is a human rights activist. Before long their beliefs lead them down separate paths and Sarah is killed in a car-bombing. Ten years later, Fielding is still haunted by her. He keeps seeing her everywhere, and the movie tries to make us think that these encounters are in Fielding's head, even though they're shown as hyper-realistic. (The movie flashes back and forth between the two periods.)

If it were the characters alone who were driving this movie, it would have succeeded. Fielding and Sarah are well-drawn characters and beautifully acted. I had always considered Crudup one of those interchangeable Hollywood hunks whose face you can't remember from picture to picture, but I admire his integrity and his skill. As for Connelly, I've always marveled at her astonishing beauty and intelligence, but this is her first truly great performance. Director Gordon seems to have drawn on her brains instead of her classic movie-star beauty, and she comes to life.

But the movie is not solely character-driven. It's full of political agendas and speeches about the system vs. the little guy. There's a lot of talk, like in a college dorm room political club meeting. Everyone hopes that they can beat the system and change the world. Most of the talk is intelligent and well-written (by Robert Dillon, based on the novel by Scott Spencer) but not all of it serves the movie itself.

I think, however, that what finally kills Waking the Dead is the back-and-forth from the early 70's to the early 80's. Somehow it just doesn't click that even someone as lovely as Jennifer Connelly would stay in someone's mind for that long. It's romantic to think that we would love someone first and foremost forever after they're dead, but it just doesn't work that way and I couldn't buy it. Plus the movie couldn't make up its mind whether or not Sarah is really dead. I know it's meant to be left up to us, but the emotional connection turns fuzzy before it gets that far.

Keith Gordon (A Midnight Clear, Mother Night) is obviously an ambitious director with a lot of good ideas. I admire most of what he achieved in Waking the Dead but I don't think people will be drawn in to it. So I can't really recommend it.

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