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Maybe I’ve had Halle Berry all wrong. I’d written her off as a hot body with a series of carefully blank expressions and an occasional hissy fit to disguise her lack of acting ability, but with Things We Lost in the Fire she finally earns the Oscar on her mantle. It’s just a shame it wasn’t in a better movie.
This is a pretty standard grief film. A family loses its father and a charismatic replacement father-figure enters their lives and helps them deal with the grief. The twist in this one is that the replacement dad is a heroin addict named Jerry (Benicio del Toro). Del Toro plays Jerry as if he’s watched too many episodes of Taxi. Imagine Christopher Lloyd’s “Jim” character thrust into a weepy movie about a dead father, and you get Jerry. Del Toro stumbles through the film with a permanent expression of confusion and bewilderment on his face, and ends up lightening the movie’s otherwise downbeat mood with almost comedic reaction shots and bizarrely mussed, out-of-control hair.
By contrast, Berry delivers a sad and complex performance as grieving widow Audrey Burke. She takes in Jerry in part out of a sense of duty to her husband (who had been Jerry’s best friend since childhood), and in part because she’s quite simply lost without her man. Audrey’s reaction to Jerry runs the gamut of emotions, ranging from pity to resentment, and the realistic way in which she takes out her feelings of loss on her unlikely lodger are both convincing and touching. Berry’s Audrey manages to be both confident and vulnerable, a real woman struggling to get through the day for her kids.
Berry’s performance is great and del Toro’s is entertaining, but the movie doesn’t really deserve them. It works early on, when the film jumps between time periods, showing us glimpses of Audrey’s life with her husband Steven (David Duchovny) cut with flashes of his family and friends attending his funeral. Once that ends, Fire seems to get lost and meanders through the rest of its running time trying to justify its existence. It becomes less about the grief Audrey and her kids are facing and more a rehab/recovery flick for Jerry, and somehow that’s just not as interesting.
The real problem is that the movie never quite connects as it should. A film about dealing with loss should choke you up a bit, but Things We Lost in the Fire is never able to drum up enough sympathy for its characters to make that happen. Maybe, as entertaining is it is, del Toro’s borderline comedic performance wasn’t right for this movie. Sure, it keeps the film from turning into a big bummer, but it’s hard to cry along with Halley Berry when we’re distracted by the wacky faces Benicio is making behind her back. A good grief movie is supposed to leave you feeling like crap and, intentionally or not, Things We Lost in the Fire ended up making me laugh.