Having failed miserably as an actress in her father’s
“Godfather III” (1990), Sofia Coppola has now persuaded the
old man to co-produce her adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’
strange, atmospheric 1993 first novel about five sisters in
a Michigan family of the 1970s who, apparently in reaction to
the alternately clueless and repressive tactics of their
parents, grow increasingly alienated and despondent. Coppola
doesn’t stumble quite so badly here as she did in front of
the camera, but “The Virgin Suicides” is still a rather
stunted and sluggish exercise in style whose sporadically
haunting visual quality doesn’t make up for its shallowness and
ponderous pace.

As in the book, the tale of the unhappy siblings is told in
flashback by a young man (voiced by Giovanni Ribisi) who was
part of a group of neighboring boys fascinated by the girls
and still trying to fathom the reason behind their final
desperate act; the invitation is for us, as members of the
audience, to become equally intrigued by the sad lasses and
similarly puzzled by the outcome of their lives. Thus we
watch as the sisters are strictly treated by their wimp of
a dad, a math teacher played by James Woods, and their
religiously-obsessed harridan of a mother (Kathleen Turner, not
as overwrought as in “Serial Mom” but not far behind, either),
and make their first, tentative moves toward puppy-love. In
particular we see the most prominent of the girls, Lux (Kirsten
Dunst) get involved with campus heartthrob Trip Fontaine
(Josh Hartnett), a dalliance which leads to increased parental
rigor and the eventual dark tragedy.

The problem isn’t that Coppola has trashed the source material;
it’s that she has treated it with excessive reverence. One
constantly gets the feeling that what one’s watching might
work perfectly well on the printed page, but hasn’t been very
successfully re-imagined in cinematic terms. Everything seems
to move with undue deliberation, pregnant with meaning that’s
never made clear or even reasonably compelling. The picture
just ambles along with little apparent point, on its way to a
denouement that has no real surprise and no larger impact.

The cast works hard to realize Coppola’s vision, but they’re
cramped by the plot and the director’s unsubtle treatment.
Woods plays a nebbish nicely, and Turner tries to restrain her
broader thespic instincts. Dunst is alluring and vaguely
provocative as the rebellious Lux, and Hartnett strikes the
right pose of arrogant bell-bottomed machismo as her drug-
addled date. (It’s nice to see the young actor out of his
usual rebel-without-a-comb scruffy hairdo, incidentally, even
if the wig he’s forced to wear is distinctly unflattering.)
The remaining young performers are all good enough without
being especially memorable. Danny DeVito and Scott Glenn
appear briefly in cameos as a unperceptive shrink and a
well-meaning priest; neither makes much of an impression.

You can appreciate the obvious dedication and respect for its
source that went into the making of “The Virgin Suicides.”
But that can’t disguise the fact that the picture as a whole is
a pretty flat, desultory affair. Still, it’s not bad enough
to close off a directorial future for Sofia Coppola, as
“The Godfather III” rightly did her acting career.