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Little Children, a second excursion into middle-class unease by Todd Field after his intelligent but overrated In the Bedroom, opens with a slow pan around a living room whose shelves are crowded with cheap china figurines of . . . little children. Twisted into insidious grins, their blood-red lips ooze a comic horror that will seep into the lives of the film’s real kids, who are alternately overprotected and neglected by hapless parents—more precisely, mothers. The movie unfolds at a leisurely pace in the parks, pools, and leafy homes of a commuter town in Massachusetts, an idyllic suburb where people come to bury their dreams, and in so doing warp them into nightmares. Though there’s a strong case to be made for the city as the new hub of puritan living, where people do little but overwork, overconsume, and flop into bed at 9:30 p.m., suburbia continues to serve as the dartboard of choice for filmmakers bent on demonstrating their urbane superiority to the dull denizens of tract housing.
For all its surface spit and polish, Little Children is no different. It posits a town full of hypocrites busily persecuting their local child molester (a compellingly creepy Jackie Earle Haley, who plays an equally slimy bastard in All the King’s Men) so as not to face up to their own subterranean secrets and desires. Behind the happy family facade are husbands and fathers who wear panties on their heads while jerking off to computer porn and fail to satisfy their desperate housewives in the sack. Though there’s genuine affection for the movie’s wise, spunky old dames, Little Children is downright vicious toward its stay-at-home moms, ciphers who sit all day in the park, tut-tutting over snack protocol or giggling like virgins when a handsome dad shows up. Chafing against this furtively unsavory group are Sarah (Kate Winslet) and Brad (Patrick Wilson), two unfulfilled young parents unhappily married to other people. After a blissful summer lounging at the public pool, they find themselves coupling sweatily in her laundry room on a regular basis—until Brad’s scarily competent wife (Jennifer Connelly) smells a rat.
Adapted by Field and Tom Perrotta from the novel by Perrotta (who also wrote the satire that became Alexander Payne’s Election), Little Children divides its time evenly between melodrama and black comedy, uneasy bedfellows under most conditions but especially in a movie that solicits sympathy for its wounded souls. Where Perrotta is a born satirist, Field works most comfortably within the frame of earnest realist dramas. A former actor himself, he draws uniformly smooth performances from an unwieldy ensemble. Winslet, her ripe beauty bursting out of sensible dungarees and cardigans, makes us see how Sarah, an Eng. Lit. graduate student until she threw it all over for life in hell, could fall for a chronically underachieving doofus like Brad. But this overly long movie, made sluggish by a superfluously novelistic narrator, feels divided against itself, driven by opposed impulses of tragedy and dark humor that make it impossible for us to identify with these lost souls’ break for freedom or wait for them to grow up.
And so the illicit affair drags on and on, and you can see Madame Bovary, that indispensable helpmeet of every unhappily married lass, coming around the corner. Sure enough, she shows up as the hot read at a women’s book group where Sarah defends the freedom to choose a satisfying life against a young matron (played with delicious snarkiness by Mary B. McCann) who’s appalled at the very idea of an adulterous heroine. Having made its pitch for life, liberty, and the pursuit of romantic happiness, Little Children takes a sudden left turn, gathers itself into a moue of petit bourgeois disapproval, and deals out the wages of sin with such zealous overkill, it put me in mind of the nuttily discordant murder that derailed the final scenes of In the Bedroom. Freud himself would have found the unmanning of the movie’s most damaged “little child” a tad literal-minded.