Review of The Perfect Storm

Friday, June 30th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

The Perfect Storm will leave you feeling wet and exhausted, which is its intention.

It may also leave you cold, which isn't.

The movie is a technical marvel, with scenes of rampaging nature that approximate ominous visual poetry. But dramatically, the ambitious film is hollow. You care about the people at a dutiful distance, but never with upfront empathy.

Ultimately, The Perfect Storm is a perfect demonstration of what's right and what's wrong with so much of contemporary filmmaking. If you get emotional about technology, you'll be more than satisfied; if you get emotional about human beings, you'll be acutely aware of a void.

An accusing finger must be pointed at director Wolfgang Petersen. In the near-classic Das Boot and the lesser but popular Air Force One, he proved to be a master of environment, respectively a German U-boat and the presidential aircraft. But his characters often seem like stick figures adrift in a meticulous mosaic.

So it is with The Perfect Storm,, based on the best-seller by Sebastian Junger. It traces the last voyage of the real-life fishing ship, the Andrea Gail, which in October of 1991 had the misfortune to collide with the most ferocious storm in recorded history. The film captures the feel of the vessel and the fury of the storm. The giant waves are wickedly beautiful in the most literal sense.

But the characters are dwarfed in more ways than one. With a few exceptions, the men are drawn in broad, primitive strokes while the women, perhaps inevitably, are of the wait-and-weep variety. The most poignant relationship does not involve nominal stars George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Diane Lane. Two fine character actors - John Hawkes and Rusty Schwimmer - make memorable impressions as Bugsy, a homely and lonely sailor who longs for a connection, and Irene, a woman with two kids who's seen it all but is still capable of surprises. Otherwise, director Petersen has cast actors who look right at home on the Massachusetts seafront, without giving them much to do.

The most memorable character, in the film as in the book, is the sea itself, referred to as "she." As presented, the sea is a deadly siren, the most fatal of femme fatales - alluring, teasing, mercurial and, above all, merciless. She's also wondrously photogenic, thanks in no small measure to computer-generated images.

Mr. Petersen manages an exciting man-overboard vignette and a hungry-shark segment. But there's also, unfortunately, a final church eulogy that seems nothing more than a token nod to the "softies" in the audience.

Mr. Clooney is routinely credible as the hard-nosed ship captain, an underwritten role that he's never given the opportunity to flesh out, while Mr. Wahlberg has an even sketchier character. Ms. Lane has several touching moments as Mr. Wahlberg's ladyfriend, whose life has been a series of compromises and adjustments. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is sharp and convincing as a tough-minded boat captain. But Karen Allen and the usually superb Cherry Jones are given nothing more than wash-out characters.

The Perfect Storm somewhat self-importantly presents itself as a tribute to the men and women who braved the ferocious gales of nature. You wonder, then, why we learn so little about them.