A Simple Twist of Fate is filled with dense material of such weight, it feels like literature. Indeed, these events are "inspired", as we hear so often, by 1870 the novel Silas Marner by George Eliot. It's apparently a popular book, to have been made or adapted at least nine times (four of them before 1920). Steve Martin is responsible for updating the story, and putting himself in the lead.
Set in a small town, Martin plays Michael McCann, a lonely bachelor turned inward by earlier events in his life, finding his solace in hoarding a fortune in gold coins. He is a furniture maker, and hides the coins in a hidden drawer in his own home. Gabriel Byrne is John Newland, a young politican who does his best to hide the twin embarrassments of his drunkard brother and an old drug-addicted girlfriend who is raising a daughter he has never acknowledged. When the brother (Stephen Baldwin) crashes John's car, killing the girl he was with, he stumbles away, and finds himself at McCann's house. Desperate, and knowing McCann's reputation, he searches and finds the coins as McCann sleeps. When McCann wakes, he finds his treasure, and the main motivation left in this life, missing.
But we're not even done with the setup at this point. Not long thereafter, the old girlfriend, daughter in tow, heads off to confront Newland for money, but runs out of gas on the way. Again, this happens nearby McCann's home. The woman, confused from withdrawal symptoms, dies in the snow, but not before her not-yet-speaking daughter explores her way into McCann's warm home. With no relatives in sight, McCann offers to raise the girl.
Here we are then. The main thrust of the movie is showing the McCann's transformation from lonely misfit to proud indulgent parent. The culmination of the movie surrounds what happens as her true parentage comes to light.
The mood starts out very heavy, almost ponderously so, and this feels very amiss to me. Is it because I know Steve Martin is typically a comic actor? Is it the acting? I think it's merely a case of balance. We know soon enough how unhappy everyone is, but we keep going on with it. When McCann's coins are finally stolen, it seems about the most likely thing to happen. With such a down opening, the joys of fatherhood come off as simply incongruous.
With little Mathilda's growth, the movie gets better, more rich, until the whole thing dissolves in a tired courtroom sequence that, while executed fairly enough, does not make for a terribly fitting conclusion for the film.
Aside from these script problems, there is a lot of potential in the story here, but it's got its feet in two different worlds. There is true heart at the center of this film, and everyone involved seems to feel it. If only everyone didn't take it so seriously.
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