Posted: 07/06/2000


A Simple Twist of Fate


by Del Harvey

A fine updating of a classic novel makes for a heartwarming tale of love and second chances.

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When a performer tries to shift their career away from that which they are most known for, they often find themselves lost and misunderstood, and ultimately most will return to the safety of that thing which is synonymous with their success. The superb athlete Michael Jordan could not make the adjustment to baseball, and was forced to finish his career as the superstar of the basketball court. Bill Murray tried his hand at serious acting in The Razor’s Edge, and for his efforts found his career floundering for a few years; neither the critics or the audience were appreciative of his efforts.

There are a few people who have succeeded, however. Penny Marshall, once Laverne in the popular television show Laverne & Shirley, has successfully made the leap to film director, and has the string of hits to prove it. Mel Gibson seems to be on a similar track, having won a Best Director Oscar for his efforts on Braveheart. So, what is their secret?

Steve Martin did the screenplay and was executive producer and star of A Simple Twist Of Fate. This film, which is quite engaging and full of sweet drama and simple, universal values, is a departure from the pure comic genius he is known for. Fate was given proper support by the distribution company, but audiences refused to accept Martin as a serious actor.

This is extremely confusing to me. Steve Martin has been the funniest man in America for generations, but not all of his films are pure comedy. Parenthood, for example, presented many topics which are extremely serious and required him to perform in a decidedly unfunny manner. Similarly, his role in Grand Canyon called upon a generally unfunny Steve Martin to wax philosophical with Kevin Kline. The remakes of Father Of The Bride are not gutbusters packed with the zaniness of Bowfinger or The Jerk. Yet, in spite of these obvious digressions, Martin’s portrayal of the struggling loner Michael McCann in
A Simple Twist Of Fate received disfavor at the box office as well as from the critic’s pulpit.

Fate starts with Martin’s character being repulsed by his wife, who has found out she is pregnant. Divorced, he becomes a loner, a builder of fine furniture in a small Virginia town. He invests his money is gold coins, which he stashes away in his house. Through a series of events, he winds up with a small female child in his home and, in order to adopt her, must change his reclusive lifestyle. He raises the child and things go smoothly, considering, until the girl reaches her early teens and her real father surfaces to claim her. Martin must fight for her and the happiness he has discovered in the course of re-building his life, and the life of this abandoned child.

I have read reviews of the film which identify the script as “far-fetched” and have called it “a stinker.” The story was adapted for the screen by Martin from George Eliot?s novel “Silas Marner,” one of the great works of literature. Older works such as this are often seen as far-fetched, but that does not decrease their total value as a work of literature. This script tells a story that is not that different from many contemporary stories on the front page of any newspaper in the country. With the exception of a few minor moments, the script is generally a fine bit of human drama, not too saccharine and not too sweet.

The acting in A Simple Twist Of Fate is very, very good. Martin hits the right notes as McCann. And Gabriel Byrne is perfectly repulsive as the father too concerned for his political career to do the right thing. Laura Linney (Armistead Maupin’s Tales Of The City) is marginal, as always. I realize this perspective may be much too subjective on my part; but she seems to be constantly trying too hard, no matter the role. Catherine O?Hara, as McCann’s best friend and the owner of the town?s antique store,is as excellent and energetic as she was in Beetlejuice, Home Alone, and early days on Second City TV. The six different young actresses who portray Mathilda at different ages in her life are remarkable.

The direction, cinematography, set design, and soundtrack all compliment the heart of the film, which is as true and as sweet as any contemporary drama. While not an outstanding film, there is something about A Simple Twist Of Fate which allows us viewers to feel, if only for a few hours, something wonderful for people whose lives are not that different from our own.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He lives in Chicago and survived the Directors Guild of America, the Walt Disney Company, and Lucasfilm.

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