A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
You would guess from the title of "Desperate Characters" that the film might have something to do with Thoreau's observation, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," and you would be right. If you're anything like me, you would also fear that, sooner or later, one of the characters in the film would actually quote Thoreau -- and again you'd be right.
Somewhere in here is the key to why "Desperate Characters," a very good film, falls short of greatness. Frank D. Gilroy, who wrote and directed it, is a shade too consciously literary for my taste; his "The Subject Was Roses," as play and movie, and his "That Summer, That Fall," a play that previewed in Chicago, were both written in a style of dialog that sounds as if it's being recited, not spoken.
This can occasionally be exactly right; people do sometimes speak in a mannered literary style, as anyone who has seen John Simon or William Buckley on TV can testify. There's a scene in "Desperate Characters" where Shirley MacLaine, waiting in a hospital emergency room, says: "The sights were smells and the smells were sights." Her husband ask what she means. "If I were writing a book, that is how I would describe this place," she says. "I wish I were." "Were what?" her husband asks. "Writing a book."
Another character in the film, an English professor getting on into middle age, uses an elevated speaking style to express his distance from his students, and here again the technique works. But eventually the dialog mannerisms begin to build up, and you realize that the characters are sometimes actually telling you what an experience means, and how they feel about it. I don't think dialog should do much exposition; movies can show you things and don't need to tell you so much about them.
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