Lantana takes its name from a tropical shrub whose clusters of bright flowers all but conceal its dense, thorny undergrowth. And so it is with the four married couples who inhabit this Australian nod to Short Cuts and Magnolia. On the surface, their marriages are fine. Or not so fine. Or on the verge of ending. Or already ended. But it's beneath the surface where their thoughts and feelings lie, tangled into knots. The movie itself is structured like a lantana. It opens with a tracking shot of a corpse somewhere out in the woods, and we immediately assume we're watching a murder mystery or a crime drama. We are, but murder isn't the only mystery. Nor is it the only crime. Above all, Lantana wants to know what causes the love to die in a relationship. And if there's time off for good behavior.
Anthony LaPaglia is Leon, a police detective in Sydney who's lost his zest for both life and his wife. Leon's having an affair with Jane (Rachael Blake), who's separated from her husband. Meanwhile, Leon's wife, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong), is seeing a therapist, Valerie (Barbara Hershey), who's having her own problems with her own husband, John (Geoffrey Rush). Have I left anybody out? Oh, Nik (Vince Colosimo) and Paula (Daniela Farinacci), who live next door to Jane and seem perfectly fine until Nik is hauled off to jail on suspicion of murder. If director Ray Lawrence and scriptwriter Andrew Bovell (who adapted his own play, Speaking in Tongues) allow coincidence to roam freely in Lantana, it only contributes to the movie's sense of lives intertwined by fate. Apparently, even God has his little secrets and lies.
LaPaglia, who's had small parts in several Hollywood movies, comes into his own in Lantana, where he gets the chance to show just how hard and soft he can be. Leon has a way of exploding and then immediately cooling off, as if he's suddenly realized that he's a nice guy, not a brute. Mostly, he's numb. And the entire cast does a great job of showing us people who are just going through the emotions. That could have been a drag to watch, but there's something pleasing ' hopeful, even ' about the way all those emotions link up. Unlike Neil LaBute's Your Friends and Neighbors, which nailed its couples to the wall, Lantana has real sympathy for those who are lost in the labyrinth of trust and betrayal.