By John H. Foote
From the moment I saw her in Mystic Pizza (1988) and Steel Magnolias (1989) there was no doubt Julia Roberts was going to be a major star. Not actor, not yet as she had not learned enough at the early juncture of her career, but one could not deny the camera loved her unique face and that dazzling, almost too big for her face smile. Nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her work as the doomed young mom in Steel Magnolias (1989), no one could have predicted what happened next.
Overnight, by the sheer force of her personality, Julia Roberts, courtesy of a modern day Cinderella story, was a household name. Pretty Woman (1990), a paint by numbers romance, caused America to fall in love with her as Richard Gere did on screen, and as they say a star was born. This time she was nominated for Best Actress and had directors lining up to work with her. Among them, Steven Spielberg who cast her in his woeful Hook (1991) just one of misfire after misfire Roberts signed on for.
Dying Young (1991), Sleeping with the Eneny (1991), the first a bomb, the second made money but was crucified by the critics. Suddenly she was in trouble, and it seemed she stayed that way for most of the nineties, only to bounce back with a vengeance in 1988.
One after one box office duds, Mary Reilly (1994), I Love Trouble (1993) until finally, she found a hit in the silly wedding film, My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) which brought her back. In quick succession she gave us Stepmom (1998) and the altogether lovely Notting Hill (1999) for which I think she should have been nominated.
Then came her Academy Award-winning performance as Erin Brokovich (2000) which seemed to tell the actress, you have arrived. Her work since has usually been very good: Closer (2004) a brilliant performance among equally great performances, a foray into the goofy Ocean’s Eleven (2001) series, outstanding Emmy nominated work in The Normal Heart (2014) for HBO, and another Oscar nomination in the ensemble piece August: Osage County (2013).
And now Ben is Back.
Let me state straight off I am not among those who feel Roberts should be nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress in Ben is Back, for though she is very good, this is not a film or performance for the ages. Portraying Holly, a middle-aged mother, and wife, she arrives home from town, shocked to find her oldest son Ben (Lucas Hedges) in her driveway. As he has been away in a recovery hospital for drug addicts she is surprised though delighted to see him. Given his history of lies, deceit, manipulation, theft and so much more, she agrees to let him stay one night, to wake up Christmas morning in his house with his family. She does this over the intense objections of her husband, Courtney Vance, and her oldest daughter who remembers all too well life with Ben.
Holly issues one rule for him staying, “You are never to be out of my sight.”
A visit to the local mall makes clear that Ben is home, and to some very nasty drug dealers that is music to their ears. Ben owes some truly bad people money, and they come collecting in the most personal ways.
Returning from church, the family finds their home broken into, nothing was taken but their dog who means the world to them all. Ben and Holly venture out into the night to retrieve the dog, Ben believing he knows where the animal is. Throughout the night Holly will understand just how terrible her son’s addiction was, and what vile things he did for drugs or money.
Roberts does some great work in the final third of the film as she becomes increasingly aware of how badly addicted he truly was. She really had no idea and, as mothers do, takes it upon her shoulders, takes the blame, even though Ben is telling her no one could have stopped him. Hers is a powerful piece of acting, but Best Actress worthy? Seriously, um, no.
Lucas Hedges made himself known to us in the superb drama Manchester By the Sea (2016) for which he was nominated for an Oscar. Earlier this year he gave a powerful performance as a young man having the gay beaten out of him by a church organization in Boy Erased. As Ben,he is again sublime, capturing the profound regrets for bringing his family into such peril, for exposing what he is to his mother, and coming face to face with who he is in his journey through the night, into his own heart of darkness.
He is again brilliant.
Directed and written by his father Peter Hedges, a rather minor film director, Ben is Back feels like an HBO film, and I do not mean that as a negative. Noble storyline focusing its attention on a worthy cause, great performances just not quite the stuff of the big screen.
Still, tough to shake some of the searing scenes of mother and son. Grimly realistic.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.