With a brave new film in cinemas, Jennifer Connelly is on the radar once again. Dan Slevin looks at a Blu-ray box set celebrating her four-decade career.
For an actor whose early career was defined almost entirely by her physical attributes – almost impossibly, classically, beautiful – to still be getting leading roles 39 years after making her debut is an achievement to be celebrated. For her latest film, Alice Englert’s New Zealand production Bad Behaviour, to be one of the bravest performances she’s put on film is even more remarkable.
So much of Connelly’s career has seen her playing daughters, girlfriends, muses, wives – she won an Oscar playing Russell Crowe’s wife in A Beautiful Mind in 2002 – of other, more central, mostly male, characters. After watching Bad Behaviour you find yourself wondering what she might have done with bigger, juicier, roles sooner.
A new Blu-ray box set from ViaVision attempts to showcase some of the highlights of that career but not the biggest or best-known entries. I suspect that its existence owes a lot to the vagaries of home entertainment licensing as much as a genuine desire to survey her best work.
A box set that doesn’t feature Labyrinth (Henson), The Hot Spot (Hopper), The Rocketeer (Johnstone), Requiem for a Dream (Aronofsky), A Beautiful Mind (Howard) or Little Children (Field) means that the home runs are not included in the highlights package, but the three films selected demonstrate of the arc of Connelly’s career, and the package is a typically handsome one, including a lots of extras on each disc, and a special booklet featuring a number of excellent essays on the films and on Connelly herself.
But let’s look at the films.
Career Opportunities (1991)
The earliest of the three is also the weakest, a film that you’d think probably wouldn’t justify a big home video restoration unless it was going in one of these box sets.
Written and produced by John Hughes, Career Opportunities feels like a first draft knock-off of one his better titles, a combination of Ferris Bueller and Home Alone with a twist, the twist being that our Ferris clone (Frank Whaley) isn’t as able or as charismatic as Matthew Broderick and the two criminals who move the plot along aren’t as funny as Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.
Whaley plays Jim, a small town dreamer constantly getting fired from dead-end jobs, but content to live in a Mitty-like fantasy rather than confront the real world. One of the objects of his fabulations is Josie, the most beautiful (and richest) girl in high school.
When they become trapped together for a night at the local Target department store – he is on his first night as the cleaner and she has fallen asleep in one of the changing rooms after a failed attempt at some shoplifting.
Sparks fly at first, then romance, and then they have to fight for their lives when a pair of murderous robbers (played by the Mulroney brothers) break into the store.
Connelly is perfectly fine trying to give her clichéd character some layers but she can’t make Whaley any less annoying. Thomas Newman’s score sounds like Harold Faltermeyer who was a big deal about five years earlier.
Waking the Dead (2000)
We jump forward nine years to a more prestige production, one of those literary adaptations that gave everyone involved plenty to sink their teeth into.
Connelly is still second-fiddle, this time to a baby Billy Crudup who plays an idealistic young politician forced to confront the possibility of compromise in order to get elected. She plays the progressive and principled girlfriend who dies young and then haunts him in flashback.
The film is directed by Keith Gordon (A Midnight Clear, The Singing Detective) who threatened to become a big deal in the early 2000s but who now makes episodes of prestige television like Homeland and Fargo.
Connelly struggles with a character whose narrative purpose is just to torment the lead by demonstrating how far he has fallen from their shared early-70s anti-capitalist values. The rapport between them in the early scenes is wonderful – they’re both so beautifully alive with each other – but her character literally has nowhere to go.
House of Sand and Fog (2003)
The best of the box is another example of a top prestige literary adaptations and, not un-coincidentally, it’s the film that gives Connelly the most to do.
She plays Kathy, a recovering addict scraping a living cleaning other houses who in her depressed state fails to realise that unpaid taxes mean she will lose the house she has inherited from her father.
Ben Kingsley plays a former Iranian army colonel, a refugee from the Ayatollahs, who sees an opportunity to secure his family’s future with a bit of real estate flipping.
This is powerful slow burn of a picture as we see these two people are on a collision course Neither of them are in the wrong per se, but neither of them are willing to back down.
Connelly is terrific as the woman waking up from her depressed malaise too late to save what matters most to her. Kingsley is perfect – as he so often is – as a proud man realising that his stubbornness is hurting the ones he loves.
All the support are excellent but especially Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo as Kingsley’s wife. She’s the moral core of the film and how it is that she is credited below Kim Dickens who has two, small, relatively unimportant scenes, is beyond me.
Credit, too, to cinematographer Roger Deakins who brings all that sand and fog atmosphere to life. It’s a good Blu-ray for anyone’s collection.
The Jennifer Connelly Film Focus box set is available now and has an RRP of $89.98. It’s worth remembering that, due to international licensing agreements and the economics of physical media, that these three films are unlikely to arrive on a streaming service any time soon, although you may find them as a digital rental. But ownership has its benefits and pleasures.