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"Origin Of The Species" -- A Nice Beginning
by Michael S. Goldberger, Film Critic
Various newspapers, Tri-State area (NY, CT, NJ)
 
 

Do you feature yourself a good judge of emerging talent? Want to be able to say you knew them when? Chances are, one day you'll be able to make that claim if you see "Origin Of Species" - sort of like saving a rookie's baseball card and then hoping he becomes a Hall-of-Famer. First, however, you'll have to find this independent film playing somewhere. Recently screened at the 1998 Myhelan Film Festival following its best film award at the Houston Film Festival in April, if, when and where it will be released for general consumption remains to be seen.

But if you do catch this promising first effort by director Andres Heinz, don't let the title fool you. This is no long-awaited dramatization of Charles Darwin's thesis on evolution. No Galapagos Island location shots; no giant turtles; no missing link; not even Tarzan. So, you won't have that unenviable task of deciding which is better, the book or the movie.

If "Origin Of The Species" were in fact based on a non-fiction work, a chapter from Gail Sheehy's "Passages" would be more like it. Already touted in some indy film nooks as a "Big Chill" for Generation-X'ers, its curious title refers to the lead character's preoccupation with the theory of evolution.

Studious, incisive and forever dissecting both life's great motivations as well as its minutiae (sometimes, with little differentiation), philosophical Paul (Elon Gold) is of late on a Darwin jag. The Martha Stewart of the gang, he leaves nothing to chance, from meals to conversation topics. It's probably what makes his best friends both love and hate him. And, let it be known, there will be plenty of loving and hating this weekend. For it is the 10th annual gathering of the six best friends who comprise the young cast. The yearly site for the much anticipated pilgrimage is Paul's mom's country house, which, in a portentous bit of news for the college pals, has recently gone to contract.

This group has baggage. If they were boarding a plane, they'd be charged for the excess. While Paul may be trying to figure out how feet metamorphosed from the webbed variety to an Air Jordan 12 double-D, his wife Julia (Amanda Peet) is actually in a position to begin knitting booties. But the newly impending arrival has the former cheerleader type in an identity tither. So much so that she has not yet told hubby about their own little contribution to the evolutionary process. Oh, but she does tell Fisher, the resident lady's man whose glamorous job as a voice-over artist may not be all that it's cracked up to be. Later, when Kate learns Julia is in a family way, she chides: "She doesn't know if she wants to have a baby or be the baby." Ooh, catty.

Sexy Kate (Sybil Temchen), who is to "Origin Of The Species" what JoBeth Williams was to "The Big Chill," is a trafficker in attractiveness. That albatross stole she wears about her shoulders is a rather dubious trophy which leads to an introduction of Stan and how she done him wrong. You see, continuing casting analogies, Stan (Jonathan LaPaglia) is the motion picture's answer to William Hurt's sexually maimed soul. However, this go-round he is a victim of cancer and a surgeon's scalpel rather than some North Vietnamese shrapnel. When he was first diagnosed, siren Kate gave him the gate.

Ah, but hope springs eternal. Laura (Jean Louisa Kelly), in the last "Big Chill" comparison you will read here (promise), is akin to the romantically awkward 5th wheel played by Mary Kay Place. Sensitive Laura has a crush on Stan------ innocently unfazed that he may be damaged goods.

Writer Robert Weston Ackerman, adapting from his Off-Broadway play, tosses these ingredients into that dramatic cauldron known as the confrontational weekend. Director Andres Heinz ambitiously stirs. And the likable enough cast, most of whom have already flirted with greatness (e.g.-- Miss Kelly was in "Uncle Buck"; Mr. LaPaglia had a part in "Deconstructing Harry"; and Amanda Peet did a "Seinfeld"), manages a modicum of ensemble electricity. What develops often has that derivative taste. Yet there are moments, both touching and humorous, when the variation on a theme creates its very own flavor.

But for this auditor, the real enjoyment of screening "Origin Of The Species" involved the entire independent film experience. At Myhelan, a nascent film festival held in a rustic stone and frame firehouse perched atop Schooley's Mountain Road in picturesque Long Valley, New Jersey, a group of obviously dedicated cineastes gathered to sit on metal folding chairs and imbibe that culture known as film. And whether or not any of the movie's young stars ever get to sink body parts into wet concrete on Hollywood Boulevard, "Origin Of The Species" proved a fitting start for an evolving tradition. ___________________________________________

"Origin Of The Species," not rated, is a Nickoll Arcade Film directed by Andres Heinz and stars Elon Gold, Jean Louisa Kelly, Michael Kelly, Jonathan LaPaglia, Amanda Peet and Sybil Temchen. Running time: 95 minutes