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« Review: "The Little Stranger"| Main| Telluride 2018: World Premieres,Special Tributes,Oscar Dreams »
Thursday
Aug 30 2018

Months of Meryl: Dark Matter (2007)

JohnandMattheware watching every single live-action film starring Meryl Streep.

#35 —Joanna Silver,a university patroness with a penchant for Chinese culture.

MATTHEW: On paper,the prospect of Meryl Streep offering her time and talents to an innovative Chinese director's micro-budgeted filmmaking debut is immediately intriguing.Dark Mattersounds like a welcome divergence for an actress who has seldom strayed from inside Hollywood's gates over the course of her 30 years in the industry.Noted opera helmer Chen Shi-Zheng's first foray behind the camera is loosely based on the 1991 University of Iowa shooting,in which Gang Lu,a gifted Ph.D.graduate in the school's Department of Physics and Astronomy,murdered five people on campus after being passed over for a prestigious dissertation prize,Shi-Zheng's drama is a work of no small audacity,one in a scattering of American films that have dramatized the unrelenting pressure placed on young Chinese immigrants to provide and succeed in a country that has already stacked the deck against them.

ButDark Matterquickly dashes the hopes one might have harbored for Streep's curious venture into post-Sundance indie cinema...

Liu Ye stars as Liu Xing,a graduate student newly arrived at a Salt Lake City university to study cosmology with the prestigious Professor Reiser (Aidan Quinn).Liu's intellect and diligence make him the professor's prized pupil,but his insistence on furthering his own theory of dark matter — and perhaps even surpassing the work of his flighty mentor — drives a wedge between the two men,ultimately turning this rising star into persona non grata in his chosen field.Streep is all concerned glances and soothing tones in her supporting part of Joanna Silver,the school's primary sponsor of scholarship students like Liu and a woman who has immersed herself in a connoisseurship of all things Chinese,possibly to distract from a home life of evident emptiness.Never mind that the film never comes close to critiquing the character's Sinophilia,which manifests itself in the collection of objects and protégés alike.

Dark Matteris an overworked farrago,from its dirt-cheap efforts at outer-galaxy stylization to its tastelessly-constructed school shooting finale to its unnerving dialogue scenes,so many of which evince the tin-earned,energy-depleting phoniness of a flagging improv sketch.To her credit,Streep,sporting golden curls that are oddly reminiscent of Sophie Zawistowska's,comes as close as she can to teasing out something approaching a specific character,at least as much as this film,with its bewildering clash of the hokey,the flamboyant,and the realistic,will allow her to.The actress is never less than an inviting personality,especially when trying to establish a purposeful connection to Ye,and finds several gradations on the plummy,moneyed benefactress,although few impressions really stick.

The always welcome Bill Irwin appears sporadically as Joanna's absentee husband,and both actors work carefully to depict an unhappy marital bond without simply playing bitter pills,even as the script fails to give them anywhere to take their efforts.

In most movies,Streep's unpredictable inflections and off-the-cuff gestures are cherry-on-top pleasures from an actress who cannot help but seek to please;here,they're life vests that deflate the second we grab ahold of them.Dark Matteris one of those performances whose only merits are the ways in which Streep manages to not embarrass herself.As inThe House of the SpiritsandBefore and After,Streep could have probably cruised through this movie while just being herself,but she puts in her best effort,despite the often risible incidents she's asked to enact.John,which of these woebegone scenes are your,uh,favorite?

JOHN: Wait,Tommy Wiseau didn't write and directDark Matter?Wait,this is not an NYU film student's senior thesis?Wait,Taylor Schilling had a career after this movie?Reader,it'sthatbad.Let's generously attribute this trainwreck as the result of styles,languages,and forms getting lost in translation,from opera to film,from Chinese to American stylizations,from real-world incident to its filmic representation.Dark Matterpremiered at Sundance just months before the tragedy at Virginia Tech,and due to the unfortunate similarities the distributor shelved the film until April 2008,where it quietly slipped into some theaters with almost zero press coverage.(It remains Streep's lowest grossing film,failing to crack even the hundred-thousand mark.)  I desperately wish that Streep had given interviews on a press tour for the film to describe exactly what piqued her interest,but let's infer it was the tony pedigree of Chen Shi-Zheng or perhaps the timeliness of the school shooting subject matter.I genuinely wonder (read: doubt) if Streep read a script before signing onto the project.InDark Matter,Streep is hopelessly stranded and prone to rehashing her flighty and affected shtick to pass off ludicrous dialogue in ways that almost never cohere.It's a supporting role that could just as easily be cut from the film.

In my "favorite"scene,Liu tries to sell Joanna face cream.At this point,Liu's dissertation has been rejected,and he is now inexplicably selling beauty products.(Hey,ever notice howcosmetologysounds likecosmology?Thank you to Taylor Schilling as a barista for making this joke in error,but a real big thank you to Billy Shebar for actually writing this plot line into the script.)

Liu saunters onto Joanna's property,who's laying on her couch when he rings her bell."Ah!Liu Xing!What a wonderful surprise!I was just thinking about you.I can't look at the sky without thinking of dark matter,"she admits as though she were a child forbidden to ponder such profound ideas.Joanna knows that his dissertation has been rejected and her eyes well at the sight of this brilliant but spurned scholar as if he were her own son,"You,sell?"she asks."Just to pass the time,"he sheepishly responds,trying to wrestle a cream that came loose out of his bag.Ye can barely make eye contact with Streep as he begins rubbing lotion on her forearms and hands.This moment is shot and played with the puzzling possibility of romance,even as the clumsy assortment of creams and sprays laid out on Joanna's coffee table make for a comic gesture that is completely misplaced in tone.Finally,Liu reaches out to dab Joanna's cheek with cream.Joanna is startled,and Liu can barely apply more than a rotation before her eyes well up,which she lies and blames on an "allergic reaction."

There is a kernel of a movie inDark Matter— you can somewhat sense it in the juxtapositions between Xing's deceitful letters home overlaid with his parents' menial labor back in China.Criticizing such a small and evidently well-intentioned film isn't fun.As Joanna,Streep is a philanthropist who helps Chinese students achieve success in America,but Streep herself is also playing benefactor here;her presence alone assured funding and distribution forDark Matter,without which the film might never have been produced or seen by audiences,American or otherwise.Yet,when faced with the prospect of actually watchingDark Matter,fans and casual viewers alike should make like Joanna at the film's finale andrun.

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Reader Comments (8)

Thank you for clearing this mystery up.I've always wondered what this film was about and why I never saw it get a release,or even see it show up on the movie channel.
It's a pity this didn't work out,particularly considering it has Aiden Quinn and the under utilized Blair Brown.
2007 was the last year of the Bush presidency and Streep also did Rendition and Lions For Lambs,These political films all fizzled at the box office.Good thing Mama Mia and Obama came along in 2008.

August 30,2018 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Saw this movie and could not understand why Streep decided to do it.

August 30,2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

The plot is really tragic,just how it was done was really weird.
I thought I might hate it,but in the end I didn't.It was overall just so strange,but not uninteresting at all...
Why did Meryl do this?She had her reasons,I think.Maybe the plot?Why else would she do movies?

August 30,2018 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

One of the absolute worst films I've ever seen,and simultaneously,the write-up I was most looking forward to.

August 30,2018 | Unregistered CommenterBeau Mccoy

@ what a lame retort!!

August 30,2018 | Unregistered CommenterRdf

I can't imagine Schilling having much of a career.Orange is the New Black has been good IN SPITE of her,not because of her,and if she's gone or only occasional after Season 6,that's a good call.

September 1,2018 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

This was Streep's only opportunity to speak Mandarin (or any language native to Asia) onscreen.

September 2,2018 | Unregistered CommenterJeff

Just catching this now.A film I had never heard of before today!

September 5,2018 | Unregistered CommenterParanoid Android

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