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Saturday, March 17, 2001

'House of Mirth' offers impressive acting

Gillian Anderson, Eric Stoltz's dialogue and acting isn't quite enough to save a dry story

The new acclaimed film "House of Mirth," based on Edith Wharton's classic novel, is like the original tome and other classics; it's undoubtedly a fertile story and rich in language, but affairs get a bit dry and tired as the course of event chugs along.
   Some of the dialogue sings out loud, and other bits hum a sad little ditty, but oftentimes the conversation falls to humdrum depths. The screenplay, written by "Mirth" director Terence Davies, doesn't lend itself to the big screen very well. Intrinsically, it wouldn't be tolerable to watch, but thanks to a core of impressive performances, the finished product pokes above a decent par.
   Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) is torn between her heart and her head. Everyone tells her that if she's smart she'll marry money, but while she's entertaining those lofty ideas, she misses her chance to marry her true love, Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz).
   At a rare meeting between the two possible lovers, Lily tells Lawrence: "Love me, but don't tell me." And her pursuit continues for the man with money and an admirable character. The two qualities don't seem to intertwine and Lily is faced with numerous offers from rich but heartless men. Lily gets a small financial stipend from her rigid aunt, but she has a tendency to gamble her pension away.
   The world is against women in "Mirth's" setting, early 20th-century England. Society's prejudices against unmarried women are even worse, and the pressure on Lily becomes unbearable. Even though she sticks to her ethics and doesn't succumb to the temptation of undeserving men, Lily is still stumped and sinks to poverty when her aunt dies and leaves her only enough to cover her debts.
   The best thing that comes out of "Mirth" is Gillian Anderson's performance. Since most TV actresses become well-known through a silly sitcom or a hit drama, it's always a surprise when they deliver a performance that proves they can act. This is that for Anderson.
   Even Dan Aykroyd, the perennial funnyman of "Saturday Night Live" fame, keeps a straight face throughout "Mirth." His despicable character, Gus, is one of Lily's single-minded wealthy suitors - and he's married - and Aykroyd plays the part with delicious frown and frumpiness.
   Much of the film's language is eloquent and descriptive, thanks to Wharton. When Lily's sister Grace talks about men, she tells Lily: "They have minds like moral flypaper." Along similar conversational lines, Lily tells Lawrence at one point: "It's stupid of you to be disingenuous, and it isn't like you to be stupid."
   But it's not enough to save this production. Sometimes-dry verbosity isn't the best ingredient for a film that clocks in at just more than two hours.

Pop culture and media critic Ricardo Baca can be reached at 886-3688 or by e-mail at

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