In Lantana, Ray Lawrence’s fastidious diagram of inert lives and impacted relationships, Sydney is for all intents and purposes an outer circle of hell. Adapted by Andrew Bovell from his play Speaking in Tongues (currently at the Gramercy Theatre), the film creates a world so hermetic its every interaction is practically incestuous. Middle-aged cop Leon (Anthony LaPaglia) is ambivalently involved with just-separated Jane (Rachael Blake), whom he met at the salsa classes that his wife, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong), enjoys markedly more than he does. Sonja has an inkling of Leon’s infidelity, and confides in her somewhat glazed therapist (Barbara Hershey)—whose own marriage, to a stoic academic (Geoffrey Rush), is a sickbed of paranoia and heartache, battered beyond repair by the still-raw death of a pre-teen daughter.
The chance-impelled multi-strand narrative is an intrinsically expansive form, premised on the possibility of (and yearning for) connection, even if the sensibility tends toward the depressive (see, most obviously, Magnolia). But Lantana is a perverse model of circumscription—its closest analogue may be a Neil LaBute contraption like Your Friends and Neighbors. Notions of serendipity or happenstance are too benign to apply to the underlying machinations in this purgatory, where synchronicity is a grim twist of fate and there is no such thing as a happy accident. In the most disquieting scene, Leon rounds a bend while out jogging, smashing into a stranger, who first staggers away bloodied then falls weeping into Leon’s arms. (Bovell’s script is never more fatuous than when this character is resurrected, along with other minor players, for what Magnolia devotees will recognize as a sub-Aimee Mann congregation.)
Lantana divides its bottomless reserve of misery among four couples (Jane’s estranged, hapless husband and her young, working-class, ostensibly contented neighbors are also roped in), and cedes to a missing-person investigation midway. Lawrence, a director of commercials whose only previous feature credit is 1985’s Bliss (based on the Peter Carey novel), gives the film an aptly enervated look, and he gets nuanced performances from LaPaglia, Blake, and especially Armstrong, though the psychology is skimpy to the point of abstraction. The scenario eventually becomes so coincidence-choked that the filmmakers have no choice but to play it for mild snickers. Indeed, the oppressively hesitant, reticent tone often seems like mere counterballast to the mounting implausibilities. The characters keep bumping into each other, like molecules in a collision chamber, and the oxygen begins to deplete as the degrees of separation dwindle to zero.
The suspicion that torments Hershey’s character in Lantana—that her husband is having an affair with a man—constitutes pretty much the entire plot of the ludicrous Spanish melodrama Second Skin. Apparently reassembled from the cutting-room floor of any given daytime soap, the film sifts through the fallout of a painter’s discovery that her weaselly husband is sleeping with hunky surgeon Javier Bardem. It’s hard to single out the most mirthful aspect (the heaving music, the random cutaways to waterfront sunsets, the flailing train wreck of a resolution), but the film’s greatest crime lies in consigning the always effulgent Cecilia Roth to the fag-hag sidelines.