We all know the rap on John Sayles. His movies are earnest but dull, character-rich but drama-poor, densely textured but with frayed threads hanging from the edges. Sunshine State probably won't change anybody's mind about this well-meaning director, but it does have something that only the best Sayles movies have: a firm sense of what binds a community together and what tears it apart. Like City of Hope and Lone Star, Sunshine State paints on a large canvas, this time with the easel set up on a soon-to-be resort island just off the Gulf coast of northern Florida. Blacks and whites have lived here for years, not always in harmony but harmoniously enough to keep handing the place over to their children and their children's children. Now the developers are moving in, with their bulldozers and their condos and their golf courses. If you could bottle sunshine, Florida would be happy to sell it.
"In the beginning, there was nothing," Alan King says before whacking a golf ball down the fairway amidst a mangrove swamp. That this philosophical fat cat sounds like Jackie Mason will disappoint those who've come to expect from Sayles a remarkable sensitivity to political correctness; surely the Jews aren't the only ones who've made Florida what it is today. But King's only a framing device. We spend most of our time with the local yokels, who either can't wait to cash in or have no intention of ever doing so. Leaving all traces of Carmela Soprano behind, Edie Falco is Marly, a woman stuck running the Sea-Vue Motel. Then there's Angela Bassett's Desiree, who left town 25 years ago and can't believe she's returned, if only for a visit. We meet Desiree's mom, played by Mary Alice, and Marly's mom and dad, played by Jane Alexander and Ralph Waite. Heck, we meet dang near everybody.
Alas, they all seem as politically and historically astute as John Sayles. As in his other movies, the characters in Sunshine State have a way of turning into mouthpieces for Sayles' various points of view. It's as if he'd read everything he could get his hands on and then sat down to write the script. But there's a difference between politicized drama and dramatized politics, and Sunshine State often errs on the side of the latter. If only Sayles would bury his influences deeper, as William Faulkner (whom the movie references more than once) used to do. Or if he'd given this large-canvas portrait the biting wit that Robert Altman brought to Nashville. There's a lot going on in Sunshine State, and the movie's breadth is enjoyable in its own right. But I couldn't help feeling that, like some big-city developer, Sayles has imposed himself on this community rather than allowing it to pursue a life of its own.