The Myth of Fingerprints

"The Myth of Fingerprints" is as rigid and repressed as the family reunion it investigates.

Topics: Movies,

IT’S BEEN 17 YEARS since “Ordinary People.” Nearly 20 since “Interiors.” Everyone who’s been panting after a movie about emotionally straitjacketed WASP families can breathe easy again. The characters in Bart Freundlich’s “The Myth of Fingerprints” are so frozen they’re practically a new snack treat: WASPsicles, now in your grocer’s freezer. These people are so cold they seem to change the weather. This family reunion story takes place over a frigid Thanksgiving weekend in New England. I don’t know where Bart Freundlich is from, but as a lifelong New Englander, I can assure him you don’t find lakes completely frozen over in November.

It’s a symbol of stasis and inability to communicate and silent suffering, don’t you know, like the dead turkey that father Roy Scheider buys and blasts with his shotgun to make his family believe he bagged it, or the title of the novel his daughter Julianne Moore settles down to while away the weekend with, “The Screaming of the Rabbits.” If you see it in the right mood, “The Myth of Fingerprints” can be quite the giggle inducer. When her train pulls into the station, Moore’s Mia is visible in the window, humping her nerdy therapist boyfriend Elliot (Brian Kerwin). Mia’s brother Jake (Michael Vartan) stops on the drive home for a roadside boff with his girlfriend Margaret (Hope Davis). That night, snug in the various guest rooms of their parents’ country-style home, they start all over again and their noise gets Mom (Blythe Danner) and Dad going at it. Not even a half-hour into the movie and nearly everyone’s been stuffed but the turkey.

Like all family get-together dramas, “The Myth of Fingerprints” is about secrets and long-buried resentments coming out in the open. But because this is about WASPs, those hidden emotions come out ever so discreetly. You listen to the people here arguing about things like the proper amount of mustard to use in food (I swear to God) and it’s just chatter, like lousy music drifting into your windows from a neighbor’s house. There’s no sense of how these petty annoyances portend a storm, the way that the miser father’s fretting over the diminishing level of his whiskey bottle in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” does. The big secret finally comes, and it’s a yawner. It’s revealed that Warren (Noah Wyle), who hasn’t been home since breaking up with his girlfriend Daphne (Arija Bareikis), oversaw his father making a drunken pass at her (she rebuffed him). That’s the kind of problem you’d think could be easily settled by a talk with Daphne and a swing at the old man. Instead it propels Warren into the icy wasteland of guilt and buried anger that the rest of his family inhabits.

With the exception of Scheider, who glowers through the role as if he thought he was doing Strindberg (or at least a Milk of Magnesia commercial), it’s hard to fault the cast. What hinders them is that the roles, as conceived by writer-director Freundlich, are such clichis. Wyle is very appealing, but it doesn’t do much for an actor to spend an entire movie pensive and wounded. As Daphne, Bareikis has a fresh, open face that’s like a little glint of real sunshine. Laurel Hollman as the jock daughter Leigh is loose enough, but she never gets to make good on the dirty glint that comes into her eyes whenever Kerwin’s Elliot walks into the room (though he is amusingly befuddled). There may be no more thankless role than the damaged loner, though as the young man whose crush on Mia is rekindled when he sees her, James LeGros (he was Matt Dillon’s drug buddy in “Drugstore Cowboy” and Diane Lane’s grungy paramour in “My New Gun”) brings his customary sneaker-soft generosity. There may be no young actor who is as yielding and solicitous of the women he shares screen time with. If someone were to put that quality into a romantic comedy, LeGros could really bloom.

Moore gets the worst of it. Mia, an artist who works as a gallery receptionist, is essentially a composite of the Mary Beth Hurt and Diane Keaton roles in “Interiors”: the intelligent daughter who can’t find a satisfactory way to express herself creatively and the one who can’t keep from using her sharp, cutting anger to lash out at the people around her. Moore is a startlingly intelligent actress. She has a way of narrowing her eyes that makes it appear as if she has distanced herself from her surroundings at the same time as she is coolly appraising everything in her line of vision. But Mia is a strident drag of a role. Her reluctance to soften suggests an actor not unwilling to play unlikable, but she’s stuck here in a conception, not a part. As her mother, Danner makes the cleanest getaway. If you stuck feathers in her hair and forced her to stand on one foot while reciting Edward Lear nonsense verse, Danner couldn’t help but seem like a real person. She’s good in every scene she has, whether she’s seducing her husband or breaking into an admiring grin when Davis informs her she wants to sleep with her son. And she has one terrific moment, explaining to Moore that life with Scheider hasn’t always been easy, but she’s never doubted her love for him. In the midst of Freundlich’s contrivance, Danner is blessedly natural.

“The Myth of Fingerprints,” with its sensitive acoustic music and finicky composed shots of wintry landscapes and relentlessly subdued tone, is a reminder of the problem identified by Pauline Kael in her reviews of “Interiors” and “Ordinary People”: Movies about WASP repression invariably wind up aping the tidy, stultified lives they’re meant to reveal. “The Myth of Fingerprints” is only 90 minutes long, but watching all this tasteful torment, you can’t help thinking that if you were watching a Jewish family or an Italian one, the air would be cleared — and you’d be out of the theater — a hell of a lot quicker.

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>