Picking up the Pieces

By Joel Cunningham

You probably haven't heard of Picking Up the Pieces—perhaps because it didn't receive a theatrical release in the US. When the producers couldn't find a distributor, it was shown once on cable TV, never to be heard from again. Of course, DVD is often the savior of the unappreciated film, and Artisan has delivered a nice special edition. The question is, did the film deserve the release, or should it have stayed on the studio shelf?

Tex (Woody Allen) was getting pretty fed up with his cheating wife Candy (an unrecognizable and unbilled Sharon Stone), so he decided to do something about it. Of course, in hindsight, cutting her up into seven pieces probably wasn't the best solution. As Tex drives across state lines to bury her, one of her hands drops out of the back of his pickup near the small town of El Niño. Later, an old blind woman trips over the hand and her sight is restored. She rushes it to the town priest Leo (David Schwimmer), and as more and more miracles occur, the hand is recognized as a sacred object, perhaps the hand of the Virgin Mary herself ("Yeah, I'm sure the Virgin wears turquoise polish - "). Of course, the cops get involved. Kiefer Sutherland plays Bobo, the sheriff on Tex's tail. The church wants the hand for religious reasons, Bobo wants it to convict Tex, and the townspeople want it to cure their ills (and make them big bucks on tourism, too). In the end, maybe God is just playing a joke on everyone.

Director Alfonso Arau called Picking Up the Pieces, "magical realism". He describes this realism as the dreamlike nature of the film, the layering of several different realities that all exist together. After seeing it, I have to agree. A lot happens here that certainly couldn't be considered realistic. From the miracles to the characters to the town itself, everything is exaggerated. As with Arau's most successful work, Like Water For Chocolate, Picking Up the Pieces deals with faith—not so much in the religious sense, but in the magical sense.

Unfortunately, the film doesn't seem to be sure what it is saying about faith. The script is so concerned with presenting farcical characters in outlandish situations, it forgets that they are supposed to serve a purpose. The real message of the movie is glossed over with clichéd commentary on the commercialization of religion. Yes, the people in El Niño are hypocrites, healed one minute and trying to exploit their experience the next. But what does it all mean? Picking Up the Pieces tries to do too many things at once, and ends up doing none of them well. The seeds were sown for a fantastic, satirical look at how different people react to faith in the face of modern life; instead, there is a lot of crude humor, sex, and bad language. The film delights in offending (especially with elements like the sexed-up priest and the hand, frozen in a perpetual "flip-off"), but offers no final message and no clear commentary.

The cast of characters here certainly outshines the script, and I can't for the life of me imagine how so much big-named talent got involved. Besides Allen, Schwimmer, Stone, and Sutherland, the film features cameos by Cheech Marin, Lou Diamond Phillips, Andy Dick, Elliot Gould, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Kathy Kinney. All the performances are good, although Allen seemed a little on the extreme side with an all-out parody of his nervous guy performance. Stone was amusing in an unbilled role (although considering how the film did, I don't blame her for asking that her name be removed). I found it very amusing that Jewish actors played all the Catholic clergy in the film.

Arau also directed A Walk in the Clouds. While that film wasn't the best (it DID star Keanu Reeves), it looked fantastic. Picking Up the Pieces falls into the same category; Arau is a very competent director. He balances the fantasy and reality in the movie nicely and always keeps things moving. The real standout here is the beautiful New Mexico scenery, photographed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who worked on Apocolypse Now and The Last Emperor. This may be one of the best looking bad movies out there. Too bad the script doesn't match the talent involved.

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