Is she dead or is she Memorex? That’s essentially the question
posed by Keith Gordon’s ambitious but lethargic new film based
on Scott Spencer’s novel–although the director might want it
to be posed in a more serious vein, because his picture is
nothing if not deadly earnest (indeed, ponderously so).

“Waking the Dead” focuses on a young liberal politician,
Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup) who’s picked by his powerful
mentor Isaac Green (Hal Holbrook) to run in a special election
for an Illinois congressional seat that’s just been vacated
by a fellow caught in an apparent homosexual scandal. The
year is 1982, when progressive policies could still prevail
at the polls; but Pierce’s chances are endangered by his
obsession with lovely Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), an activist
who was killed ten years earlier in a car bomb while escorting
a couple of Chilean refugees–vocal opponents of the brutal
military regime–through the midwest. The young man’s thoughts
of his lost love grow so strong that he actually begins seeing
her and wondering whether her death wasn’t staged for political
reasons and she’s still alive; the notion tears at him so
strongly that it nearly derails his campaign.

The film is meant to work on two levels. On the one hand, by
shifting constantly between 1972 and 1982, it tries to detail
the relationship between Fielding and Sarah and its impact on
the fellow’s psyche. On the other, the death of the girl is
obviously intended, to some extent, as a metaphor for the
candidate’s loss of idealism as he becomes less a principled
figure and more a professional politician.

Unhappily, the finished product doesn’t really work on either
level. As a document of a personal relationship it fails
utterly, simply because there’s virtually no chemistry
between the stars; moreover, both are simply too young for
their roles. That’s not fatal in the extended flashbacks,
where Crudup’s callowness and Connelly’s collegiate charm don’t
seem out of place even if their scenes together never really
persuade us of the deep passion that’s supposed to exist
between them; but in the 1982 scenes Crudup in particular
seems like a high-school kid playing at being a grownup, and
his selection as a candidate by the well-oiled Chicago
Democratic machine strikes one as absurd.

Nor does the picture succeed as a coherent portrayal of a
decline (and rebirth) of idealism. The final sequence, in
which Pierce finds himself in imaginary conversation with some
of his constituents, tries to persuade us that his reconnection
with Sarah (or her spirit) has somehow reinvigorated him, but
that’s a point that’s never communicated in a cinematically
effective way. As a result the film comes across as
intellectually shallow as well as dramatically inert.

That’s a pity, since Gordon is a young filmmaker of some
stature, whose previous efforts (“The Chocolate War,” “A
Midnight Clear” and “Mother Night”) have all been intriguing,
even if only “Midnight” was fully realized. In each of those
cases, however, he was dealing with far superior source
material. In this instance Gordon doesn’t even capture the
mood of the 1970s and 1980s particularly well, nor does he
make good use of such stalwart supporting performers as
Holbrook, whos just coasting here, or Oscar-nominee Janet
McTeer, who’s completely wasted as Pierce’s sister. (On the
other hand, Gordon gives far too much leeway to Paul Hipp,
who overdoes things badly as the candidate’s black-sheep
brother Danny, and to Sandra Oh, who’s really embarrassing as
Danny’s sad-faced ex-hooker girlfriend.)

But the most stellar performances probably could never have
compensated for the weaknesses in Robert Dillon’s script and
the excessively deliberate pacing Gordon chose to impose on
it. “Waking the Dead” is D.O.A., and none of its manifest good
intentions are capable of resuscitating it.