Bening, Moss, Stoll and Ronan make a flawed 'Seagull' almost fly
Posted May 15, 2018 1:17 p.m. EDT
``The Seagull'' has all the big things going for it and yet so many little things going against it that it's just not the movie it might have been.
Chief among its virtues is the source material. The film is an adaptation of Anton Chekhov's play of the same name, a comic tragedy with such an embrace of life and such an understanding of its disparate characters that, even watered down, it has an impact. And then there's the cast, which seems like someone put together a dream wish list and then, by some miracle, every actor said yes.
Annette Bening as Arkadina. If you know the play, just hearing that casting makes you start to laugh at the perfection of it. Then add Corey Stoll as Trigorin -- another bulls-eye. Plus, Brian Dennehy, Elisabeth Moss, Saoirse Ronan . . . This is a movie that could have been great, and yet it's not. Still, it's the only Bening-Stoll-Dennehy-Moss-Ronan ``Seagull'' the world will ever see, and it's not bad.
Several things get in the way. The cinematography is occasionally odd, often hovering and moving for no apparent purpose, and just as often cutting off people's heads. Then there's the musical score, which at times sounds like Philip Glass and at other times sounds sentimental, but at all times is simply too noticeable. It provides an unwelcome poignant commentary, suffusing the moments between scenes with the suggestion of an omniscient presence, one that recognizes some higher order running through these lives. For Chekhov, that's exactly the wrong note.
Director Michael Mayer either encouraged this or allowed this, but either way it was a mistake. The result is a movie that lacks cohesion. It's as if at the end of every scene, the film goes into a zone of weird, and then has to start again from scratch. Fortunately, Stephen Karam's colloquial, American-sounding adaptation is quite skillful, preserving most of the play's big moments.
``The Seagull'' is about human yearning and how that intersects with the desire to create art. Arkadina is a successful actress, whose self-satisfaction is complete and joyous, like a child. And Trigorin is a great writer. There's nothing particularly special about them besides their ability to create, which seems innate and unrelated to their personalities. Meanwhile, Arkadina's son Konstantin (Billy Howle), who dreams of becoming a great writer, has all the passion and fury in the world, but he lacks talent. To some degree, that is also the case with Nina (Ronan), a country girl who is considering a stage career.
The way to watch this ``Seagull'' is scene by scene, hopping from one to another, and savoring what one can. The scene between Trigorin and Arkadina near the end of the film is a highlight, and so is the interlude between Nina and Trigorin. Moss has some great moments as the tormented Masha (a burgeoning alcoholic, pining for Konstantin), and whatever you're picturing when you imagine Bening as Arkadina -- she's all that, but better.
All in all, this ``Seagull'' will do until the right one comes along.
Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic.
2 1/2 stars out of 4 stars Drama. Starring Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan and Elisabeth Moss. Directed by Michael Mayer. (PG-13. 98 minutes.)