The Austin Chronicle

Passion Fish

Directed by Sayles. Starring Mary Mcdonnell, Alfre Woodard, David Straithairn, Vondie Curtis-Hall.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 5, 1993

Passion Fish proves that when you have a great script, great performers and a great location, you don't mind that the movie goes on a tad longer than it should. Although its lugubrious pace certainly fits its Louisiana bayou setting, the excess is not so much extraneous as unessential. It would be hard, though, to mar this fairly perfect movie. Oscar-nominated McDonnell and Woodard create two memorable characters engaged in a process of discovering their mutual links. Run over while exiting a taxi cab on her way to a leg waxing, TV soap actress May-Alice (McDonnell) finds herself a sudden paraplegic. Bitter and refusing all physical therapy, she returns to her childhood home in Louisiana. Her venom drives a succession of nurse-attendants away (in a comic montage that is one of the movie's stand-out sequences). Only Chantelle (Woodard) has the grit to stay, not so much as from any special connection with her patient but more from her dogged assertion that she “really needs this job.” A movie like this could so easily have followed standard formulas. The recent Scent of a Woman is a good example of the formulaic conventions in which the irascible “sickie” and the green recruit discover their mutual and complementary needs. Passion Fish falls into none of Scent of a Woman's traps. In fact, its avoidance of easy sentimentality is one of its hallmarks. The TVs that blare the afternoon soaps in the background, starting with Passion Fish's opening sequence, provide constant counterpoint to the ultimate ordinariness of these two women's lives. These are just two unexceptional people trying to figure their way through the world. Through trial and error they learn that if they link up their lives, the road may be a little bit easier, a little more enjoyable and gratifying. The world can then become a place of possibilities. Where Passion Fish ends is with the discovery of potential, not with the cheap pathos and cheery resolutions the stock formula for this kind of film dictates. And that brings us back to this wonderful script (which is also Oscar-nominated) by director Sayles and the equally wonderful performances by all. At turns funny, caustic, mysterious, compassionate and joyful, the story is gleaned more often from its telling asides and the things left unsaid than from anything overt. No small player in this is Louisiana itself. Its unique, rollicking culture and penetratingly humid succulence have rarely been captured with such evocative splendor. But mostly what we have here is another refreshing rest station in the line of John Sayles' movies which move in a continuum. Like the lives of his characters (as well as the audiences), his movies always play like works in progress, in the process of becoming.

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