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Main Street is a cautionary tale, but not the kind it's intended to be

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Main Street the movie is finally coming to Main Street the street.

After nearly a decade since plans were originally conceived for a shoot in Durham; through innumerable twists, turns and false starts; having passed through the hands of at least a half-dozen different screenwriters and directors; and with over two years elapsed since shooting wrapped, Main Street arrives in time for the grand re-opening of the newly renovated Carolina Theatre (which is actually on Morgan Street, around the corner from Main).

While the prospect of watching major film stars kicking around in the nabe just outside the theater is delicious, there's something undeniably wistful about the opening in Durham. No larger release is planned, despite the many talented people who worked on it. In fact, probably the only thing that saved Main Street from oblivion and won it a limited theatrical release is the happy accident of Colin Firth's Oscar for another movie he shot in 2009, The King's Speech.

Unfortunately for Durham and for the film's backers, despite the initial promise and the big names attached (the cast, in this case deserving of the modifier "all-star," includes Firth, Ellen Burstyn, Patricia Clarkson, Orlando Bloom and Amber Tamblyn, and the script was written by the celebrated Oscar and Pulitzer winner Horton Foote), it turns out Main Street wasn't worth the wait.

The creators clearly had in mind a patient, low-key portrait of ordinary folks in a down-at-the-heels Southern town, but there's a line between patient and listless, between low-key and pointless. The story doesn't have much in the way of tension or conflict; you know the stakes are low when the climax is powered by an ordinary weather event (SPOILER ALERT: It rains). The actors gamely wrestle their Southern accents to a tie, but in their struggle to create believable characters, the half-baked script has them in a hammerlock they can't wriggle out of.

Which naturally leads one to wonder how closely they examined the script (if indeed they had a chance) before signing on—perhaps Foote's name was enough of a draw. "I was quite interested that this was a Horton Foote piece even before I read it," Firth is quoted as saying in the film's press notes. "He is responsible for some of my favorite plays and screenplays. Once Ellen was cast, it was somewhat irresistible."

And surely it was lost on no one that producer Thom Mount's last project here, the Ron Shelton-penned Bull Durham, won lavish critical acclaim, made $50 million at the box office and is frequently cited as the best sports movie of all time.

That was back in 1988. Mount produced a string of films after that, but when he started work on Main Street his résumé on IMDB had been blank since 1996. Similarly for Foote, who won a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1995 and whose 2001 play, The Carpetbagger's Children, was well-received, by the time he started working with Mount in 2004, at the age of 88, his pace of produced work had slowed.

A glowing New York Times Magazine article in 2007, however, seemed to give the lie to the master in decline. Alex Witchel described an indomitable and energetic Foote, with a crystal memory, working closely with Mount to flesh out the script that he described as "my companion for a long time now."

Foote continued revising through late 2008. He died in 2009, at the age of 93, just before shooting got under way.

The onscreen evidence shows that further revisions were sorely needed. But by the time Mount assembled the various moving parts it was too late for rewrites. Movies with much larger budgets and longer time frames, or with much smaller budgets and more flexibility, may have the luxury of modifying screenplays on the fly; when the clapper came down for Main Street in April 2009, however, the producers had no choice but to go to war with the script they had.

The star-crossed production, whose convolutions were detailed in these pages last February, was described by various sources as rushed; on top of that, along the way it suffered some major hitches. Midway through, the funding collapsed, and the producers' junior partners had to scramble for capital. Having inherited the film unexpectedly, they hired a succession of different editors in a rocky post-production.

To their credit, in watching the final version Main Street, it looks like they succeeded on the editing front, as the current cut is good enough to at least not draw attention to itself. After the opening credits play over a montage of archival footage of a bustling downtown Durham, followed by contemporary images of desolation, the film quickly settles into a leisurely paced domestic rhythm.

We're soon introduced to Orlando Bloom's Harris, a young police officer who hasn't left the nest, reluctantly discussing his romantic prospects with his mother over breakfast in a conspicuously modest kitchen. He's up nights studying for a law degree in a last-ditch attempt to win back his girlfriend Mary, played by Amber Tamblyn, who's itching to leave her one-horse (one-bull?) hometown.

In a separate thread, Ellen Burstyn plays Georgiana Carr, a desolate tobacco heiress who's faced with selling her large estate to make ends meet. Sometimes sharing the room with her is Patricia Clarkson as her niece Willa, who isn't given much to do aside from serving as Burstyn's foil.

As the plot unspools, the underdeveloped characters never rise above the level of socioeconomic placeholders: the squeezed working man, the striver, the faded aristocrat. Durham, too, is painted broadly, as an archetypal hard-luck, middle-American small town. Which is funny, because, in the first place, Durham is rather medium-sized, with a tremendously wealthy university and a thriving research complex next door. Its history and present trajectory are much more complex than Main Street's simple fable. Of course, no film is obligated to capture the whole truth of a place, but since Main Street's setting has the same name as the city it was shot in, it might have made a few more concessions to reality.

Production designer Christopher Nowak addresses the discrepancy in the film's notes, somewhat overplaying five years' change when he says that "Horton was writing at a time when Durham had been more dangerous, and, in a way, falling apart. And those things are gone. This city is vital and growing again."

Conflict comes to Durham in the person of Firth's character, Gus Leroy, a Texas businessman with a scheme to store unspecified "hazardous waste" in an old warehouse owned by Ms. Carr. Right up until nearly the end of the movie, we're never told the nature of the waste (though the meaning of the word "hazardous" is unhelpfully spelled out), and before long its every mention becomes an unintentional running joke. Also unclear is why it's being trucked from Louisiana to Texas via a month-long stopover in Durham.

Another distraction, perhaps symptomatic of a hurried pre-production, is the Southern accents inexpertly deployed by the lead actors—to boot, the script has more than enough yes sirs, no ma'ams and mommas to make sure we know we're in Dixie. Former Duke of Hazzard Tom Wopat, as Mary's stepfather Frank, makes outsize hay out of a very small role by not joining his castmates in affecting a counterfeit drawl.

Visually, Main Street is undistinguished. Broadway theater director and first-time film director John Doyle and cinematographer Donald McAlpine play it safe with tame, conventional, mid-budget-Hollywood angles and lighting. This combines with an overreliance on the score to push the film uncomfortably close to TV movie territory.

The overbearing score points to a lack of faith in the inherent drama in the story, which in this case is justified. When comparing the action of Main Street to that of, say, Tender Mercies, Foote's brilliant tale about the midlife redemption of a washed-up country singer, for which he won an Academy Award for best original screenplay in 1983, one sees the same forthrightness in the dialogue, the same largeness of spirit that refuses to see any character as a villain.

Crucially, however, whereas the sharply drawn characters in Tender Mercies manage the difficult feat of speaking volumes in few words, those in Main Street are saddled with too many lines that are simply expository, spelling out the plot. What should be personal and intimate is instead political and abstract, making the film's overt themes impossible to relate to.

One is left to ponder why the producers went ahead with a script that they must have known still needed work—perhaps it was out of misplaced respect for the great man. To be sure, the film that resulted won't budge Foote's legacy as a giant among American dramatists.

As for Triangle audiences, who may be reduced to playing Spot That Location during the runtime, watching Main Street is a reminder that in the massively collaborative, wildly expensive film industry, what looks for all the world like an excellent business opportunity may turn out to be hazardous waste, cinematically speaking. Exposure to which can be slightly enervating, but it just makes you appreciate the successes all the more.

Related Film

Main Street

Official Site: www.mainstreetthemovie.com

Director: John Doyle

Writer: Horton Foote

Cast: Orlando Bloom, Colin Firth, Amber Tamblyn, Patricia Clarkson, Andrew McCarthy, Ellen Burstyn, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Margo Martindale, Tom Wopat and Victoria Clark

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