Scott McGehee and David Siegel‘s What Maisie Knew (Millenium, opening today in New York and a bit later in Los Angeles) is an adaptation of Henry James’s 1897 novel about selfish, thoughtless, bickering parents who’d much rather fight each other than be decent and kind and nurturing to their young daughter. In the present-day version Maisie (Onata Aprile) is stuck watching her detestable rock-star mom (Julianne Moore) and aloof art-dealer dad (Steve Coogan) battle each other over custody rights and then take up with younger lovers (Alexander Skarsgard, Joanna Vanderham) and generally yak on about themselves and their careers and latest moves.
The problem, for me, is that Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright‘s script hits the same note over and over again. Moore and Coogan are monsters, Moore and Coogan are monsters, Moore and Coogan are monsters. Maisie is a thoughtful and respectable film, yes, but is more about a precise but passive exploration of a malignant parenting situation than about telling a half-gripping) story that might engage or provoke. Moore and Coogan are metaphors for the corruption or inane self-absorption or cluelessness of today’s professional elite…except that James’ parents were metaphors for the corruption or inane self-absorption or cluelessness of yesterday’s elite. So there’s obviously something classic and eternal about this situation.
Except Moore and Coogan are so repulsive you become sick of them soon enough, and you just want to avoid them altogether but you can’t if you’re determined to stick with the film. (Which I absolutely was because it’s clearly been made with intelligence and a form of restraint.) And it becomes a tiny bit taxing that Maisie (a nicely understated performances by Aprile) offers no opinions and makes no judgments about either of them for the longest time. What is she supposed to be, five or six? She has opinons at that age, trust me. She knows what’s going on. So you’re feeling exasperated after a while. And there’s no one to turn to allegiance- or affection-wise except toward Skarsgard and Vanderham, and thank God for the humanity and compassion that they provide.