Sommersby wants to be a sweeping romantic epic set during the immediate months following the American Civil War. Watching it, I imagined I could hear the producers selling it to the studio as the next Gone with the Wind. The cast, crew, and approach to the material practically screams: Romance! Adventure! Intrigue! All done in a perfectly tasteful manner, of course. The film goes overboard on the tasteful part of the equation and the results are as bland as cold oatmeal.

Jack Sommersby (Richard Gere), a Confederate soldier who has been assumed dead, returns to his home at the end of the war. There he finds his wife Laurel (Jodie Foster) who puts on a happy face for the neighbors, but privately seems unhappy by the sudden return of her husband. It seems that before he left for the war, Jack was a cold, abusive husband. When she assumed Jack had been killed, she made plans to marry helpful neighbor Orin (Bill Pullman). But with Jack returned and acting like a changed man, Laurel takes up her duties as a wife and unexpectedly falls back in love with him.

But there’s more to Jack’s change than just being kinder to his wife. He strikes upon a way to jumpstart the local economy by having the townspeople pool their money together to buy tobacco seed and plant it as a cash crop. While this isn’t considered terribly strange, his promise to sell pieces of his land to those who take part in the plan is roundly considered un-Sommersby like. Even worse to the neighbors, he includes the newly freed slaves living in the area. Then there are the things that are even harder to ignore. He has mysteriously gone down two shoe sizes and strangers seem to recognize him as someone else. The spurned Orin decides to find out if the real Jack Sommersby came home from the war, or if there is an impostor living in Laurel’s home.

Judging by that synopsis, you would think there would be a lot more life to Sommersby than is on display. But the script (credited to old pros Nicholas Meyer, Anthony Shaffer, and Sarah Kernochan) never plays out the intriguing mystery at the center of the film. It’s made abundantly clear that Jack is not who he claims to be very early in the first act. The only questions that remain are who he is, why he claims to be Jack Sommersby, and how much Laurel actually knows. The who is relegated to non-important status, the why is fuzzily explained as some sort of attempted redemption, and the question of Laurel’s knowledge is drawn out in an overwrought courtroom scene that takes up much of the film’s third act. That the film has a third act comprised of a trial says much about its abandonment of being a romantic epic in favor of embracing pat clichés meant to play up some very obvious ironies.

At the same time that director Jon Amiel attempts to wrap up as many loose ends as he can, he loses track of the characters and what drives them. Jack never seems to sweat as his story starts to unravel, randomly assuring people that things are fine, but offering no evidence to back this up. The fact that most everyone accepts his reassurances without blinking an eye shows a true under-appreciation for the intelligence of the audience. Even worse, Orin makes the transition from sympathetic, spurned would-be lover to sneering villain in record time. Does he turn into the bad guy because he’s angry with Jack and Laurel’s relationship? To a certain extent, the answer is yes. But Amiel and the screenwriter’s also try to force in a subplot about racial intolerance by making the case that he also wants to stop Jack from selling land to the freed slaves. This would have been an interesting idea except for the fact that it’s barely brought up before being dropped from the film entirely.

The only thing that keeps the film watchable are the performances. Gere strikes just the right enigmatic tone — likable but never completely trustworthy. Foster manages to pull off a Southern Belle who is not a stereotype. She’s flirtatious, but grounds this attitude in typically Foster-like intelligence. Pullman does what he can with the broadly drawn Orin, even managing to maintain a shred of sympathy for the character in his final scene. In addition, capable veterans like Frankie Faison, James Earl Jones, R. Lee Ermey, Ray McKinnon, and Maury Chaykin add stability and verisimilitude to the world created within the film.

But the cast is unable to save this muddled mess from itself. Never romantic, mysterious, or exciting enough to maintain interest beyond the solving of the film’s central mystery, Sommersby limps to an unsatisfying conclusion that claims to be redemptive, but comes across as foolish to anyone with more than half a brain.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

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