“Am I ever going to feel beautiful again? On the inside?” Only audiences prepared to hear dialogue of that quality (let alone its answer: “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen”) need attend the slickly produced but facile widowhood tearjerker whipped up by Susanne Bier for her English-language debut. In fact, Hollywood sounded like a natural stop for the Danish director, whose Open Hearts, Brothers, and After the Wedding specialized in pent-up emotions so strong that they erupt in the form of operatic set pieces, with oversized performances that recalled the full-blooded melodramas of the big studio period. The West Coast may still welcome her brand of filmmaking, and she does infuse these proceedings with warmth and low-key charm, but not enough to hide the limited conceptions of the characters or a narrative that hovers on the threshold of romance-novel kitsch.
In tears from the beginning, Audrey (a relatively deglamorized Halle Berry) and her 10-year-old daughter weep over watching baby seals clubbed to death on TV, and then just continue crying when she loses her dream husband (David Duchovny). Unfailingly attentive to her, he’s also great with the kids, and newcomer Allan Loeb’s original screenplay also makes sure to inform us that, thanks to his arrangement of the family finances, “Audrey will never have to worry about money.” What more could she ask for? He even dies ideally, not in some meaningless accident but instead heroically defending another man’s abused wife.
Flailing about in her grief, Audrey latches on to her husband’s best friend Jerry (Benicio del Toro) to fill the gaping hole in her life. Never mind that he’s a lawyer-turned-junkie, because he turns out to be an equally idealized substitute. He’s appealingly wounded, trustworthy as a boy scout, the kids like him (“If you marry my mom then we could be happy and be a family again,” one says), and when she improbably invites this black sheep into her bed so he can wrap his arms around her until she overcomes her insomnia, he behaves like a gentleman. Drugs seem to warp his behavior very little, his gravest offense being exiting his Narcotics Anonymous meeting before the Serenity Prayer.
As smoothly as Bier makes the proceedings flow, she struggles to lift the drama out of its soap suds when it becomes clear that Audrey’s grief is her only distinction, and Jerry’s dilemma also hits a shallow bottom (with wide-eyed and rubber-faced del Toro falling back on producing people-pleasing moments). Tolerable while running, the movie shrivels almost immediately following the end credits, partly because Bier roots her story in no plausible social reality outside Audrey’s well-heeled suburbia, sketching an especially vague blueprint for drug rehabilitation (one early scene finds Jerry inexplicably mopping the floor at a methadone clinic yet scorning methadone). When Audrey later descends to junkie town, venturing down Seattle’s mean alleys (actually, Vancouver’s) to find the relapsed Jerry among the rude and ragged derelicts (the usually discreet score can’t resist some threatening chords here), she tempts him out of a crack house by proffering chocolate bars and ice cream.
Amid all this uplift, even the comic relief (John Carroll Lynch as quirky Howard, the henpecked neighbor) works overtime to encourage Jerry to get a mortgage broker’s license just in time for America’s housing meltdown. Meanwhile, Bier shamelessly doles out eye-rolling moments (Audrey’s wedding ring keeps slipping off her finger, a bout of cold turkey shakes ends with a moppet handing Jerry a chocolate-chip cookie), but at least she subdues her stylistic tic of underlining heightened emotion with ultra close-ups—eyes, fingers, toes, a cup of tea—and cameraman Tom Stern (Million Dollar Baby) also irons out Bier’s European spasm-cam visuals into seamlessly floating movements.
With all the characters busily turning their lemons into lemonade, this film risks little and demands nothing from the viewer save tears of empathy. To tell us something useful about the terrible pain of mortality, Bier and company would need to dig deeper, certainly much deeper than their concluding advice: “Accept the good.” Dubious at best, this nearly meaningless slogan belongs in a New Age fortune cookie (how about the bad, then? Should we accept that too, or reject it, or just ignore it?) No doubt there is an audience that will enjoy Things We Lost in the Fire for an easy cry, but the dry-eyed know that Bier can do better.