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Death becomes her

Heaven can wait for A Rumor of Angels

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Death doesn't seem so bad while watching A Rumor of Angels. Its tale of an unlikely friendship between a grieving boy and a curmudgeonly widow means to suggest that the end of life is not a fearful thing. The movie itself, however, is so grotesquely schmaltzy and incompetent that dying seems like a sweet alternative to sitting through it.

Still mourning the death of his mother, 12-year-old James (Trevor Morgan) is spending a summer in Maine with his pothead uncle (Ron Livingston). Feeling estranged from his absentee father (Ray Liotta) and mysteriously British stepmother (Catherine McCormack), James passes the hours by himself. Playing commando one night, he strays onto the property of Maddy Bennett (Vanessa Redgrave), a crazy old woman of neighborhood lore.

Spooked by shotgun-toting Maddy, James breaks her fence in the rush to escape, and, to his horror, the next day she insists he personally make the repairs. Maddy has a reputation for eating cats and her property is only slightly more inviting than the Bates Motel, but James can't avoid his fate. Director Peter O'Fallon's only adequate scenes involve James snooping around Maddy's mysterious home.

Initially, Redgrave plays such a wonderfully unsentimental, ill-tempered character that you're willing to overlook Rumor's sloppy storytelling, general drabness and Morgan's whiny, gape-faced performance. Maddy sucks cigarillos and ties off flies with her teeth en route to fishing, and seeing Redgrave's square jaw, sun-weathered features and shock of white hair, you delightedly think "This is the best Charlton Heston role in years!"

But Rumor can't allow Maddy to remain a cranky old bitch and instead softens the character in a stupendously phony fashion. The first warning sign is the fuzzy turtleneck she starts wearing when she and James become wary friends. But when the boy finishes fixing the fence, Maddy blares Mozart out her front window and exclaims, "Let's paint!" prompting an agonizing montage of dancing with paint brushes. In a later scene, she romps around the living room singing "Finniculi, Finnicula." When the Wicked Witch gives way to Auntie Mame, it's as drastic a change as if the pod people got hold of Maddy, and any good will toward the movie evacuates.

Suddenly dedicated to showing James the wonders of creation, or something like that, Maddy teaches him Morse code, and both spotlight and audio signals become their private communication. But the script can't just let the two enjoy their anachronistic pastime at face value: Maddy has to enthuse over the importance of "feeling it in your heart." Morse code takes on a celestial significance when Maddy reveals she's received messages from a late loved one, with heavenly choirs making outbursts on the soundtrack. And when James' parents find that out, their hysterical reaction only lacks torches and pitchforks.

With such a media-savvy populace as we have today, you'd think any would-be filmmaker could recognize cliches like "Don't you dare die on me!" and avoid them. But that's not the case with James Eric, Jamie Horton and O'Fallon, who adapted the script from the book Thy Son Liveth: Messages from a Soldier to His Mother. The dialogue induces so many winces, groans and stifled guffaws as to leave you physically sore, as if you've spent an hour-and-a-half with the dry heaves.

It's not as though O'Fallon has never been entrusted with a feature film before -- he directed the quickly forgotten crime flick Suicide Kings and TV shows like "Prey." But A Rumor of Angels is strikingly free of grace notes, lacking competence even in the editing: Transitional scenes and snatches of conversation seem routinely missing or misplaced. But the film feels padded and pokey when James works out his issues with his father and stepmother -- in turn. Of the actors, Ron Livingston provides some (intentional) laughs and emerges mostly unscathed, perhaps because his slovenly aspect has little in common with the legal sharpies and office drones he usually plays.

Dealing with grief and honoring the memories of the departed are genuinely noble duties. Yet A Rumor of Angels concludes with a miraculous event so overblown and bogus that it's impossible to swallow. The movie ends feeling not heartfelt and misguided but merely crass, as if the filmmakers assume that their audience has no intelligence to insult. Worse than any movie I saw in 2001 (granted, I missed Freddy Got Fingered), A Rumor of Angels bodes ill for the year to come.

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