There is almost no “before” in “Before and After.”
Right off the bat, we learn a girl has been killed and that Ben and Carolyn Ryan’s missing teenage son, Jacob, was the last person seen with her. The Ryans live in one of those adorable New England towns where city hall is made of gingerbread and people say, “Ayep,” when they mean “Yes.” But their lives are suddenly dominated by lawyers, search warrants and doubt. The movie’s about how the killing changes Ben and Carolyn (played by Liam Neeson and Meryl Streep), and how they come to realize they don’t know their own son.
The first hour of “Before and After” is just about perfect, the best adaptation anyone who read the complex, intelligent book could hope for. The characters don’t know how they feel, which means the actors have to show us instead of telling us. For instance, when the Ryans learn about the dead girl, we can tell by their reactions that Carolyn wants to find out the truth so she can prove her son innocent, but that Ben thinks Jacob is guilty.
When “Before and After” sticks with their contrasting viewpoints, it’s terrific. The movie’s central question - What would you do to protect your child, even if he may have done something terrible? - is fascinating and heartbreaking, and Streep is especially good. You can tell she’s a mother by the constricted way she says “Mm-hmm?” when she’s at the end of her rope but she knows her younger daughter needs her.
“Before and After” goes wrong when we shift to Jacob’s story. He’s played by “Terminator 2’s” Edward Furlong, whose voice always seems to be coming out of someone else, and whose teenage torments are not explored in enough depth to be interesting. Furlong also gets stuck with the movie’s most overripe dialogue (“Oh, son. My son,” Neeson moans, and Furlong replies, “I never knew how much you loved me.”).
We might forgive “Before and After” that claptrap were it not for the awful character of a shyster lawyer (Alred Molina), who is trotted out to fulfill our fantasies about what lying creeps defense attorneys are - this guy makes Johnnie Cochran look like Oliver Wendell Holmes, and he’s too easy a target in a movie that is supposed to show how complex and difficult the truth is. As a result, “Before and After” becomes a soap opera, with the frenetic, overwound Molina as the soap scum.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Before and After” Locations: Lincoln Heights and Newport Cinemas Credits: Directed by Barbet Schroeder; starring Meryl Streep, Liam Neeson, Edward Furlong Running time: 1:43 Rating: PG-13
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