Well, at least the film is appropriately named. If “Limbo” is defined as a place of confinement where you’re left to hang in oblivion, it aptly describes your condition after sitting through this new John Sayles movie.
A little bit “Short Cuts”, a little bit “Northern Exposure”, we step into a world of characters (and I mean, “characters”) in the remote environment of Juneau, Alaska. Ignore everyone (as Sayles eventually will) but handyman Joe Gastineau (David Strathairn), singer Donna De Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and her daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez). Donna dumps her musician boyfriend during a number on stage, and soon falls for the noble Joe. Joe’s house isn’t big enough for all her baggage and his, too, so they’ll need to lose some before they can find happiness with each other. The third act finds this new, dysfunctional family unit stuck alone somewhere even more isolated, for the express purpose of discarding said baggage. Writer/director Sayles has a grand time solving his emotional dilemmas and some of his existential ones, but none of his plot crises. Don’t expect many (or any) resolutions. Sayles wants us to focus on the dynamics of the three main characters, which is great. It’s just maddening to invest yourself in other characters or subplots that abruptly disappear. He’s also cheating by deliberately building tension for non-existent payoffs. As soon as Sayles reveals the emotional resolution, forget about seeing anything else.
Don’t get me wrong. Props to Sayles for giving me characters and stories to invest myself in. Ultimately I feel like I sat through a television pilot, with no point but to introduce all the eccentric characters in their manufactured context. Unfortunately, I don’t have the option to tune in next week to view the continuing zany adventures of our gruff, but loveable cast. Maybe somewhere there’s a couple of missing reels with the gun battle and the silly courtroom scene, but I doubt it.
Hey, it’s okay to bring the protagonists out to this physical and spiritual limbo; just don’t leave the audience there on your way out.