January 7, 2003 -- "Sunshine State" is an offbeat, leisurely-paced southern comedy-drama following a multitude of characters through a series of minor events on a small island in Florida. Writer-director John Sayles ("Lone Star") is known for being an industry maverick, and he shows it in this ambitious, unique film.
There are more story lines going on in this movie than you get in a year in most soap operas. Developers circle like sharks looking for land to devour on the small island. A small business owner mourns the good old days of segregation. His daughter wants to sell the family business in the worst way. Her boyfriend is leaving town to join the pro golfing tour. A woman returns home for the first time in years, still angry at her mother. A young pyromaniac burns a float in the local buccaneer days parade. A local businessman with big gambling debts has thoughts of suicide while his wife is consumed in her task of organizing the parade. An old doctor tries to rally opposition to the land developers. One of the developers has an affair with one of the locals. A football hero returns home with a hidden agenda, and is haunted by his past. A gaggle of old men plays a round of golf, commenting on everything. It sounds like a lot is going on, but it really isn't. The whole thing is just a related collection of character studies and a thin slice of life, with some social commentary thrown in.
The movie moves as slow as an alligator on a cold day as we cut endlessly back and forth through all of these tangled subplots. There are some interesting characters, but their motivations are often not clear. You have to sort of take it on faith that there is a reason for the way they behave. Among the more interesting characters is Marly Temple (played by Edie Falco of "Random Hearts"). She's the one who wants to get out of the motel business and her father (Ralph Waite) is the one who longs for the "good old days" of segregation. The motel is her father's dream, not hers. Her mother (played by Jane Alexander) seems to be interested only in her local theater productions. It turns out she has some practical knowledge, too. Marly latches on to landscape architect Jack Meadows (Timothy Hutton of "The General's Daughter"), who is sizing up her motel property for a proposed major land development. Marly is feisty and independent, but she's also allowed herself to be bottled up in this motel for years.
Another interesting character is Desiree Perry (Angela Bassett of "The Score"). Perry and her husband, Reggie (James McDaniel of the "NYPD Blue" TV show) have returned to the island to see her mother, Eunice Stokes (Mary Alice of "A Perfect World"). Both Desiree and Eunice are proud and hard-headed and their relationship is difficult. Another character, Francine Pinkney (Mary Steenburgen of "Life as a House"), is so busy organizing the buccaneer parade that she doesn't notice her troubled husband, Earl (Gordon Clapp of "Rules of Engagement" and "NYPD Blue") is suicidal. His suicide attempts are a running joke in the film. Har, har. Earl feels guilty for selling out his neighbors to push through the development for reasons that are, shall we say, less than noble. Dr. Elton Lloyd (Bill Cobbs of "Random Hearts") is trying to rouse an apathetic population to protest the huge, looming land development. Ex-jock Flash Phillips (Tom Wright) is buying up property supposedly for his own use, but he has a hidden agenda in the purchases. Something from his past returns to knock him for a loop. Another developer, Lester (Miguel Ferrer of "Traffic"), is also hungrily hunting for land and Marly's motel is the most desirable piece of land around.
In addition to development versus the environment and heritage, race also plays a big role in the story. The island was once the only place on the oceanfront in Florida owned by blacks, and the only place where blacks could walk on the beach. Some of the opponents to the big land development don't want the island turned into a place where blacks can no longer afford to live because of sky high land prices and property tax assessments. Social issues and personal stories are deeply intertwined in this rambling movie. Not all of the stories work and the ones that do are thin and scattered, but the film works well enough to make it worth watching, especially if you are John Sayles fan. This film rates a C+.
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