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"Decoding Annie Parker" is the kind of movie a critic ought to feel like a heel for panning. The actual events that the picture, directed by Steven Bernstein, from a script by the director, Adam Bernstein, and Michael Moss, represent medical milestones that have led to significant advances in the diagnoses and treatment of breast cancer. The woman who lends this movie its title, a real-life three-time cancer survivor, is a model of bravery and good humor, among other exceptional qualities. The doctor who proved the genetic predisposition aspect of cancer—that it is, or can be, passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter—is a rightly lauded physician. If there’s going to be a fictionalized movie depicting their struggles, it should be a good one.
But in life and perhaps even more especially in art, there are no guarantees. And despite a potentially inspiring story and sincere efforts from a first-rate cast—Samantha Morton and Helen Hunt are the principles, with the likes of Marley Shelton, Rashida Jones, Bradley Whitford, Aaron Paul, Alice Eve, Corey Stoll, Richard Schiff, and others, providing support—"Decoding Annie Parker" is not a movie to which this critic can give a favorable review. I’d feel more like a heel about it if the movie hadn’t actually irritated me to the extent that it did.
The irritation factor came from the slapdash period depictions, the lazy use of easy signifiers to ingratiate itself to the audience (I like the Turtles as much as the next guy, but shoehorning a feel-good romantic anthem like "She’d Rather Be With Me" into this particular drama is not a constructive use of force), the indifferent-to-bad period production value—the storyline stretches from the ‘70s to the ‘90s, and Aaron Paul’s musician character has a different bad wig for psychedelic rock, glam rock, and punk rock—and the paint-by-numbers character dynamics. Morton’s Annie Parker being the free spirit whose struggle with illness inspires her to undertake sophisticated research and Helen Hunt’s Dr. Mary Claire King being the passionately all-business researcher for whom a personal life isn’t even an option.
The movie crosscuts between their respective life-journeys with little particular sense of urgency, save for a few opportunistic and ineffectual parallel scenes, such as respective Christmas celebrations where the same holiday music is playing on the radio in both Parker’s house (in Canada) and King’s office (in Berkeley, California). The title refers to genetic code, and the discovery of the BRCA1 gene, and the flaw in it that triggers cancer, is the movie’s ultimate discovery. But the event of the title never happens in the movie, at least not at literally as the title promises. Parker’s case does not give King her "eureka" moment, and Parker and King don’t even meet until after the discovery is made and announced. By the time the viewer figures out this is how it’s going down, it’s likely that a sense of cinematic disappointment has already set in. The movie’s main point of value is in Morton’s performance. The ever-intrepid actress is unsparing in depicting the sufferings that are so inextricable from the successful (or even, as it happens, the unsuccessful) treatment of cancer. Such depictions deserve to have been made in the service of a more potent picture.
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