REVIEW: Colin Firth's Southern Accent the Least of Main Street's Problems
At first glance, the formidable cast of Main Street appears to have gathered for a chance to work off the final original script from Horton Foote, the Pulitzered playwright and two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter (for 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird and 1983's Tender Mercies) who passed away in 2009. But as the film creeps along with few signs of life, one begins to suspect the real reason they're all there is to show off that most treasured item in any actor's toolkit -- the Southern accent. Main Street is an ensemble drama that functions as a display case for a range of regional drawls, from the authentic to absurd. Patricia Clarkson, playing Willa, a divorcee who's returned to her hometown of Durham, North Carolina, easily walks away with best in show, but coming from Louisiana she's in slightly more familiar territory than Colin Firth, who, as Gus Leroy, a representative of a toxic waste management company, is a sorely unconvincing Texan.
That toxic waste is hazardous, but it also represents a possible salvation for Durham, standing in here for every American town being hollowed out by changes in the industry on which it used to depend. Durham's tobacco heyday is gone, and Willa's aging aunt Georgiana Carr (Ellen Burstyn), a silly Southern belle living alone in the grand house in which she grew up, but that she can no longer afford to maintain, rents out her unused tobacco warehouse to Gus without bothering to hear what he intends to use it for. When she's told, she frets, and enlists Willa's help in negotiating her way out of the agreement, despite having already spent most of the money, while Gus woos the city council (headed by Isiah Whitlock Jr. as the mayor) with promises of jobs and a much-needed injection of cash. Elsewhere, young Mary (Amber Tamblyn) considers leaving town and dates an older man (Andrew McCarthy), as her ex Harris (Orlando Bloom, wielding a pencil moustache) pines and the pair's parents look on in distress.
Main Street shoots for a sprawling, John Saylesian portrait of a community, but beyond just being dramatically inert -- you can only pick out the climax after the fact -- its characters also seems curiously disconnected from each other and from the physical location in which they're supposed to live. In reality, Durham has over 200,000 residents, but it comes across as so depopulated in the film that number seem more like 200. John Doyle, a theater director making his film debut here, compounds the sitcom-like feeling that everything's being shot on sound stages in Los Angeles by using few exterior shots, other than bookend montages of the city from its past and slightly dilapidated present. Despite its title, Main Street primarily plays out in living rooms and kitchens, as Georgiana bemoans her family's decline, as Harris's mother (Margo Martindale) worries her son's exhausting himself in night school, as Gus and Willa start a cautious flirtation.
The issue of crumbling municipalities whose hope for the future is fleeing with their younger generation, and who are placed in a weakened position in negotiating with businesses they might have turned away in a more stable time, is a knotty one with plenty of narrative potential. A July episode of This American Life exploring the PR battles that took place when a natural gas company looked into leasing land for drilling near a small Pennsylvania town contained enough fodder for a season of cable TV (though Lord knows how you'd pitch it). Main Street's approach is disappointingly simplistic and sanctimonious -- the bargain being offered by Gus's company is strictly Faustian. The waste being stored in that rented warehouse in lines of canisters Gus swears meet every safety standard is described dramatically by Willa as "death," and a perfectly timed accident and a character's change of heart each suggest she's right.
If Main Street offers any sort of story, it's one of a city briefly tangling with a predatory business, but managing to get away intact, while its representative new generation comes close to heading to Atlanta for new opportunities, but in the end decides to stay. So why does the film leave you feeling so sympathetic to a toxic waste company? Given the lack of other prospects left for this highly theatrical version of Durham, the hopeful lilt of the ending rings not just false but foolish, like the dithering Georgiana in her beautiful, empty house, monologuing about how splendid the old days were. One longs for someone to tell her, sure -- back then you were rich. It's when you no longer have power and resources on your side that you have to face difficult decisions, a fact Main Street dodges, and really needed to have taken on.