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Lost Souls
Performances are overshadowed in weak "Things We Lost in the Fire"

1 1/2 stars out of four

Not unlike this week's "Rendition," "Things We Lost in the Fire" is the product of a foreign-born, art-house filmmaker making their first mainstream Hollywood movie.

Danish-born director Susanne Bier ("After the Wedding," "Brother") brings her angular, independent sensibilities to a film that is hamstrung from the start because of its downbeat subject matter.

This is one of those movies designed to "move" you because it is crafted to be cathartically draining. Think two lead characters with massive emotional issues, who don't initially care for each other, who eventually find common ground and turn into shiny happy people. If the movie was made by someone like Penny Marshall or Nora Ephron, it might not have been better, but would have certainly been more commercially accessible.

Halle Berry stars as Audrey, the wife of Steven (David Duchovny), who has just been shot to death while trying to break up a domestic disturbance. On the day of her husband's funeral, Audrey suddenly remembers she forgot to invite Steven's childhood best friend Jerry (Benicio Del Toro), and summons her brother to fetch him. Jerry is a recovering heroin addict who Steven regularly visited, much to Audrey's chagrin.

In a move that seems more selfish than humanitarian, Audrey asks Jerry to move into her guest room so he can help her shoulder the burden of dealing with her two kids' emotional fallout. Despite being an ideal substitute father figure, Audrey resents Jerry's successful bonding with her children and flips out. She brow-beats him while simultaneously calling on him for emotional and spiritual relief. And maybe, just maybe, some help in the bedroom.

To her credit, Berry does her best to lend a largely sympathetic character a degree of empathy, without any success. Audrey is a conflicted character, but not in a good way. She knows Jerry - who is doing her a huge favor - is weak and is highly susceptible to relapse. She flies the flag of the Concerned Mother and Grieving Widow, but milks it a bit too much. What she does to Jerry - and her children in the wake of their father's murder - is loathsome.

Swimming upstream with little help is Del Toro, who turns in a blisteringly on-the-mark performance. More authentic and likable than he was as an addict in "21 Grams," Del Toro regularly moves mountains without uttering a word. His cold-turkey junkie is an Oscar-worthy performance, but will likely be forgotten in the long run because of the low quality of the film.

Watching such a morose movie is bad enough. Bier compounds the situation by tossing in artsy flourishes that just add insult to injury. Full-screen close-up shots of Berry's eyes and ears come across as desperate and showy. If this were a European film with low expectations, you could understand Bier's off-beat approach.

Including two recent Oscar winners in the lead roles only heightens the film's profile and amplifies its inadequacies. You can make a daring and depressing mainstream movie and it might break even. Toss inferior into the mix and you can forget it. (DreamWorks)