When a book you buy into as much as Rosellen’s Brown’s Before and After becomes a movie you don’t believe for a minute, you have to figure the problem is tone. Brown’s 1992 novel was a human drama about a New England couple whose lives unravel when their teenage son is accused of murder. The film is a melodrama that substitutes theatrics for the fine grain of characterization. It plays like a trashy TV movie with an absurdly overqualified cast.
That’s Meryl Streep, winner of a gazil-lion Oscar nominations, as cool Carolyn Ryan, the local pediatrician with the happy home life. That’s Liam Neeson, Oscar nominee for “Schindler’s List,” as passionate Ben Ryan, Carolyn’s husband and the local celebrity owing to his metalwork sculptures. That’s pouty Edward Furlong (Terminator 2) as Jacob Ryan, the 17-year-old accused of bashing in his girlfriend’s head and hitting the highway without a word to his parents. That’s Julia Weldon as Judith Ryan, the daughter nobody pays much attention to except that she’s saddled with voice-over narration that sounds like Juliette Lewis’ in Cape Fear, only even more irritating. OK, Weldon’s an unknown. But how about Barbet Schroeder? He directed Reversal of Fortune. Or screenwriter Ted Tally? He adapted The Silence of the Lambs.
You get my drift. These people should know better then to write, direct and perform in a movie that seems cobbled together out of highlights from the book like a Reader’s Digest condensation. Bing, the murder. Bang, the capture. Boom, the trial. The connecting tissue of the novel, the stuff that made us ache for the family as it tried to determine whether Jacob was capable of murder, is glossed over. Streep has a few provocative scenes with Alfred Molina as Panos, Jacob’s fast-talking lawyer. The rest of the acting is either overheated (Neeson) or underdone (Furlong). Brown’s readers who see the movie may react similarly to the Ryans when they first hear of the crime: What the hell happened?