For anyone like me who has not read Mona Simpson's novel Anywhere But Here, this film version presents a tantalising enigma. What is there in the book – themes, moods, behaviours – that inspired this bunch of seasoned filmmakers but eluded their grasp?
On screen, Anywhere But Here is a non-event. It begins as 1970s style road movie, a family-oriented version of Thelma and Louise (1991). Adele (Susan Sarandon) has just split from her dreary husband in staid Wisconsin, taking her reluctant daughter, Ann (Natalie Portman), along for the ride.
Once the car stops, the film dies. Adele is a free spirit who talks a lot about living life to the full but, from day to day, managing to survive in Beverly Hills is a tawdry business. In Ann's eyes, her mother is an impossibly demanding creature – bad at traditional nurturing, competitive when it comes to men.
How these two women manage to negotiate each other's desires and personalities should be absorbing, tear-jerking stuff – somewhere between Hollywood soapies like Beaches (1988) and Gillian Armstrong's tough-minded portraits of female experience. But this dismal movie manages to hit neither mark.
Wayne Wang is a director whose unique sensibility I have admired since Chan is Missing (1982). He is at his best when giving familiar, often sentimental material a challenging, modernist edge, as in Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985) and Smoke (1995). The Joy Luck Club (1993), a flawed but moving film, has led to more mainstream possibilities for Wang – specifically as a specialist in what the industry markets as chick-flicks.
Anywhere But Here is a buttoned-down chick-flick all the way along the line. Apart from the mother-daughter relationship, there is a pleasant gaggle of teen girlfriends; odes to the joys of shopping, make-up and clothes; and an endless playlist of notable female singers listlessly faded up and down between scenes. As is obligatory in this genre, the men are fleeting ciphers: hunky sex objects, dim conservatives or tragic partners (Ann's father is rendered as only a voice on the end of a phone).
The well-cast actors do their best with Alvin Sargent's thin script, which constantly alights upon dark, troubling material – sex, humiliation, pain – only to desperately throw a wet blanket of humour over it and shoot off elsewhere. Wang, ordinarily, is inspired by the collision of private emotion and social context; here, his lack of engagement might be explained by the awful scene in which Adele quits a job because her fellow workers call a strike.
© Adrian Martin February 2000