This is certainly the year of meek Minnesota men. First Ryan Gosling gives us the ultra-shy Lars and his “real girl.” And now in “Grace Is Gone,” John Cusack arrives as Stanley Phillips, a preternaturally reserved homestore manager paralyzed by the need to tell his two young daughters that their mother, an army sergeant, has been killed in Iraq. Putting off the unhappy task, he instead yanks the girls from school and takes them on an impromptu road trip to a Florida amusement park before finally breaking the news to them on an isolated Atlantic beach.
It’s understandable that Cusack, who’s been typecast for years as a slightly goofy, hip man-child, should feel the need to show his range. It’s questionable, though, whether taking on weepy, sad-sackish parts like this one and the lead in “Martian Child” is the best choice. From a purely technical perspective Cusack’s actually quite good, better in fact than he was in “Child.” Some of the scenes toward the beginning, in which he grieves alone over the realization that his wife is dead, would be very powerful if they weren’t larded over with Clint Eastwood’s sappy, tinkly-piano score, which seriously undermines the effect, here and elsewhere. (It replaced one by Max Richter that was heard at the picture’s earlier festival showings, though it’s difficult to understand why.) But he doesn’t fully convince—there’s a calculated, mannered quality to much of the performance, and ultimately it feels less authentic than his far more characteristic turn in “1408”—a horror-thriller potboiler, to be sure, but one in which he truly seemed himself.
In fact, the best acting in James C. Strouse’s movie actually comes from Shelan O’Keefe as Phillips’ twelve-year old daughter Heidi. The acute way in which she captures the ever-so-slightly-rebellious girl’s changing moods as she reacts to her father’s unusual behavior and struggles to understand it is remarkable in a child. As Heidi’s younger (and less perceptive) sibling Dawn, Grace Bednarczyk is also good, though in a more generalized way; and Alessandro Nivola is engaging as Stanley’s layabout brother, with whom he and the girls spend a few hours at the family homestead before proceeding south, even though the script uses him in an overly obvious way, as a war critic, to set off Stanley’s knee-jerk patriotism (and to reveal his sibling’s own military history).
But the acting can only go so far in redeeming what’s essentially an earnest tearjerker just a cut above TV-movie quality. Strouse’s script doesn’t go as far into mawkish territory as it might have done, but it comes perilously close to the edge on several occasions, only to be pulled back from the brink by the cast (as when Cusack rescues the inevitable sequence in which military representatives come to the house to tell Phillips of his wife’s death). Strouse’s direction is equally uncertain, evincing a lackadaisical quality that’s compounded by Jean-Louis Bompoint’s scraggly cinematography and Joe Klotz’s erratic editing. (Then there’s Eastwood’s intrusive, saccharine score, which suggests that this is one of those pictures that might well have benefited from a complete absence of background music.)
“Grace Is Gone” is obviously intended to use the Iraq war’s impact on a single family to comment on the ambiguous position about the wisdom and cost of the occupation that’s taken root among the American public in a dramatic way, but that probably won’t be the reason that it fails—like all the previous films about the war—to attract an audience. The simple fact is that for all its good intentions and solid acting, it ends up more maudlin than penetrating.