Ensemble dramas about the ripple effect of tragedy and fate can be a tricky minefield of screenwriting clichés. They can lead to great rewards, but the risk for failure is also high. For every Magnolia or Short Cuts, there are several disastrous efforts that rarely see the light of day outside of the festival circuit. One such effort is just barely seeing the light of day as Fragments (formerly known as Winged Creatures on the festival circuit ... a much better name) is opening in New York today and Los Angeles next week with a straight-to-DVD release for most of the country on August 4th. With a cast list that reads like a list of recently Oscar-nominated stars mixed with some who arguably should have been, there are undeniably talented people involved in Fragments (and a few of them nearly rescue the piece with their talent), but it is yet another example of an undeniable truth in drama – without the right screenplay, the best cast in the world can't make a film worth seeing.
You can see the dramatic, heartfelt themes that drew talented people to the cast of Fragments in the set-up. The film centers on the response of a group of characters to a devastating shooting in a California diner. Anne Hagen (Dakota Fanning) watches her father get shot in the tragedy and turns to God to deal with her grief and keeps a bizarre secret (that is dramatically kept for no reason other than a climactic reveal). Her friend Jimmy (Josh Hutcherson) goes silent, turning inward and driving his parents (Jackie Earle Haley and Robin Weigert) crazy. Dr. Laraby (Guy Pearce) who let the killer in on his own way out develops something of a God complex, poisoning his wife (Embeth Davidtz) with a drug that causes migraines and then gives her headache medicine to save the day. Think that's going to turn out well? The recently-diagnosed-with-cancer Charlie (Forest Whitaker) thinks his surviving a shot from the madman means that his luck has changed and spends the rest of the film in a casino learning that maybe it has not. Jennifer Hudson, in what amounts to little more than a cameo, plays his daughter. Waitress Carla Davenport (Kate Beckinsale) basically slides off the deep end, ignoring the needs of her infant son and hitting on Dr. Laraby. Jeanne Tripplehorn and Walton Goggins also appear in small roles. Well, actually they're all small roles.
The script for Fragments, by Roy Freirich from his novel, may have worked in literary form but it makes no emotional impact as a cluttered film. Each character is given no more than ten to fifteen minutes of screen time and although Freirich and director Rowan Woods work hard to push the arcs together into a cohesive whole, it never happens. The final act of Fragments is one of the most poorly constructed that I've seen in a long time as Woods jumps from character to character practically at a clip of one-line-at-a-time, doing everything he can with his editor to add emotional impact that just isn’t there. The stories don't flow into each other. They have merely been crammed together. Admittedly, there is a nice lack of melodrama and sentimentality, but that's only because there isn't time for it with 45 characters and only 96 minutes.
With a cast this talented, there have to be worthwhile moments, right? Guy Pearce is always interesting and he comes out unscathed. Jackie Earle Haley further proves with just a few scenes that he's going to be interesting in everything he does (he was the best part of Watchmen and was amazing in Little Children). Dakota Fanning is given a character with unreasonable motivations (the sudden God switch after a tragedy has been done to death) but she actually comes out looking the best. Fanning has given good "child star" performances before but her work here hints at the great work that I expect her to do as an adult. Beckinsale certainly isn't bad, but whoever thought that it was a good idea to have a baby crying in the background every time one of the most beautiful actresses in the history of film is on-camera is just cruel.
The story of a waitress who gives up on life to try and woo the married doctor who happened to be there on the most memorable day of her life; The story of a man who thinks he's impossibly lucky because he survived a shooting and learns that he's not; The story of a doctor with a God complex after he holds open the door for the Devil; Even the story of a girl who finds God when her father dies in front of her. All of these stories have enough dramatic potential to make an interesting film on their own. But, crammed into one film without any time for characterization, nuance, or an ounce of subtlety, all you get is Fragments.
Rating: ONE AND A HALF BONES