I’m not sure when Lorenzo’s Oil lost me. The opening credits are set in East Africa, the focus is on Lorenzo–for those who don’t know, who don’t remember the previews if not the film, Lorenzo is a kid who gets a rare disease–and the film takes a lyric quality. George Miller was a good, straightforward workman on the Mad Max films, but on Lorenzo’s Oil, he adopts camera angles and lighting techniques out of an early Hitchcock film and applies them–in color–to his film. At times, these methods are successful, but that opening scene promises something more than Lorenzo delivers. That opening scene suggests the film will have some enthusiasm for film and for the beauty it can display… and Lorenzo’s Oil (and Miller) never deliver it.
The problem, of course, is the reality. In reality, Lorenzo’s parents had passion for their son and they fought and these (somewhat) average people developed a treatment for the disease. The film latches on to those people’s struggles and triumphs and doesn’t create anything for itself. It manipulates the audience. The scenes with the kid in pain are excruciating to watch, so excruciating I wonder if Miller used them to compensate for the flatness coming from Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon for the first quarter of the film. As Lorenzo’s parents, Nolte and Sarandon spend the first quarter as the film’s peripheral subjects. They guide the audience through Lorenzo’s diagnose–since the kid’s pain is so intensely displayed, it’s for the audience, not for the audience to see the parents react to… Only in the second and third acts does Nolte get any personality. He’s playing an Italian and for that first flat quarter, it’s Nolte fighting against having to do an accent. Eventually, he gets it and just in time, since Sarandon finally gets a personality too–she goes somewhat nuts.
Since Lorenzo’s Oil is based on a true story and it’s based on an inspiring true story and it’s informing people about a disease affecting kids, there’s no chance it can really examine what’s going on. Sarandon’s mother abandons everyone in her life (except the husband), throwing out her sister (an excellent Kathleen Wilhoite), and instead of looking at the real human conflicts going on, Lorenzo’s Oil does a lot of fades to black. Because those have a lot of emphasis. Sarandon isn’t any good, but I’m not sure how much of the performance is her fault. It’s impossible to imagine her and Nolte–as a married couple–doing anything but what they’re doing at each and every moment in the film. They’re automatons, moving in the film to make it go where it needs to go. Nolte’s best scenes are the ones with Wilhoite or some of the other supporting cast members, whenever he gets away from Sarandon and Lorenzo’s Oil begins to feel like a narrative again.
It’s a piece of propaganda and it’s propaganda for a good cause, it’s just not a particularly good film. At times, with some of Miller’s camera angles, I kept thinking of Scorsese’s Cape Fear, especially since Nolte was occupying the same space… until the end, when Miller ripped of The Elephant Man, which I found unbelievably bold.
Directed by George Miller; written by Nick Enright and Miller; director of photography, John Seale; edited by Richard Francis-Bruce, Marcus D’Arcy and Lee Smith; production designer, Kristi Zea; produced by Doug Mitchell and Miller; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Nick Nolte (Augusto Odone), Susan Sarandon (Michaela Odone), Peter Ustinov (Professor Nikolais), Kathleen Wilhoite (Deirdre Murphy), Gerry Bamman (Doctor Judalon), Margo Martindale (Wendy Gimble), James Rebhorn (Ellard Muscatine), Ann Hearn (Loretta Muscatine) and Maduka Steady (Omuori).