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Good intentions

The Guys fails to capture the drama of 9-11


You watch the film adaptation of The Guys feeling certain that you missed out on the best way to see the material. It's not that the film falls short of Anne Nelson's play about eulogizing New York firemen lost in the World Trade Center collapse. By far the play's most effective moments would have been during its first months of production at New York's Flea Theatre. The Guys premiered in December 2001, when the Ground Zero cleanup was still under way and the scars were still fresh.

The Guys makes an honest attempt to honor the memories of fallen firemen and capture the mindset of New Yorkers in the aftermath. But the film merely confirms that time isn't kind to The Guys and shows how an undramatic play becomes an uncinematic movie.

"New York, my beautiful, gleaming, wounded city," a journalist named Joan (Sigourney Weaver) writes on her iMac at the beginning of the film. Pleasant but a bit fatuous, Joan is still shell-shocked after Sept. 11 and shaken out of her middle-class complacency.

She's frustrated that her words can't help the city heal, but she gets an opportunity to contribute when she learns of a fire captain struggling to write eulogies for some of his men. On a weekend afternoon, Nick Costello (Anthony LaPaglia) visits Joan's home and describes the extent of the fire department's loss. With nearly 350 men officially missing, they'll need a year of funerals to accommodate them all.

Mostly The Guys shows Joan take notes and prod Nick for details about the four most immediate funerals. The film doesn't use flashbacks to show the men, but through Joan and Nick's conversations we get rough outlines of Bill, a regular "shmoe" but enthusiastic senior firefighter; Jimmy, a new guy seeing his first big fire on Sept. 11; Patrick, Nick's best friend and a larger-than-life leader; and Barney, a wiseguy and firehouse handyman.

Films that show conversations between a couple of characters, such as My Dinner With Andre, succeed on the strength of the stories told or the ideas explored. But The Guys suffers from a lack of interesting stories. Nelson paints a credible situation, with Nick being tongue-tied and the collaborators pressed for time to write the eulogies, but she provides almost no vivid anecdotes.

Flea Theatre director Jim Simpson (Weaver's husband) co-adapted and directed The Guys, but he retains too much reverence for Nelson's lines. At times, we see Joan's banal observations in white letters on black screens, giving them a weight they can't support.

The Guys trims some of Joan's more indulgent digressions but retains a forced bit of levity when the pair break the tension to talk about tango dancing. Nick's discussion of the "frame," the "invisible box" in which a dancer stands, fits with The Guys' strongest theme -- the idea that in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, New Yorkers lowered their personal barriers. The film's most touching moments don't even involve Nick, but find Joan briefly bonding with a stranger at a diner and with neighborhood firemen.

Nevertheless, LaPaglia proves The Guys' strongest asset. He's fittingly restrained despite the potentially weepy material. He also gives the film its rare hints of humor in the way he shoots Joan a "you gotta be kidding" look when she asks him to read a rough eulogy aloud.

At one point, Joan reads one of The New York Times' "Portraits in Grief," but The Guys falls short of the newspaper's now-famous post-9-11 obituaries. Motion pictures call for powerful images as much as words, and The Guys only offers a few, such as the firehouse videotape of the blizzard of paper in the streets before the fire trucks depart. Otherwise The Guys confirms that the finest 9-11 tribute has yet to be filmed.

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