Danish soap virtuoso Susanne Bier, of “Brothers” and “After the Wedding” fame, has made her first Hollywood film, “Things We Lost in the Fire,” and, once again, she works the tear-jerk mechanism expertly. But Bier’s trademark emotional richness and dramatic potency are missing from this grief-and-recovery story. Consequently, it’s just a middling weepie.
Open-hearts melodrama is the specialty of Bier, particularly as it relates to characters brought together by a nasty thunderclap of fate. This time, courtesy of new screenwriter Allan Loeb, the epicentral incident is the random-violence killing of a stellar Seattle man named Brian Burke (David Duchovny). An unlikely pairing results.
To cope with her loss, Brian’s shattered wife, Audrey (Halle Berry), reaches out to Brian’s longtime friend Jerry (Benicio Del Toro), whom Audrey has disliked due to his downslide into heroin addiction. The drama becomes a chronicle of both protagonists’ struggles and recoveries when Audrey invites Jerry to stay at the house.
Jerry cleans up, bonds with Audrey's kids (Alexis Llewellyn, Micah Berry), and, encouraged by neighbor Howard (John Carroll Lynch, providing comic relief), gets his real-estate broker's license. Audrey finds comfort in Jerry’s presence, but, unable to let go of Brian, she unleashes her anger on Jerry, who relapses.
In effect, the film plays like a dumbed-down version of any of Bier’s Danish sparklers about the dynamics of human need amid the reverberations of tragedy.
Echoing “Brothers,” it wisely doesn't let the characters’ tentative attraction turn into a ridiculous romance, and it provides a poignant look at a screw-up who soars when given a chance to help others. With the exception of a bedroom moment in which Audrey uses Jerry as a platonic stand-in for Brian, the interactions between Berry, who is good, and Del Toro, who is excellent, aren’t false.
But there’s nothing special enough to enable the movie to amount to more than a so-so soaper. Where Bier’s other films have contained riveting undercurrent and psychological texture, phony Hollywood ingredients — swelling music; kid cutesiness — now fill the picture. A scene in which Audrey roams the skid-row streets in search of Jerry proves laughable due to Halle Berry's unsuppressed glamour.
Stylistically, Bier continues to operate in handheld Dogme mode and to be fond of the extreme eye close-up. Unfortunately, when there is little emotional nuance reflected in the characters’ peepers, this technique proves merely annoying in its artiness.
Things We Lost in the Fire **
Starring Halle Berry, Benicio Del Toro, David Duchovny, John Carroll Lynch
Written by Allan Loeb
Directed by Susanne Bier
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes