Sunshine State  (2002) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Sunshine State is the latest from maverick filmmaker John Sayles. Sayles is a writer/director whose work is held in great esteem by film critics. In fact, that probably means everyone who is familiar with him loves his work, because nobody else has ever seen it. I don't think he's ever had a film gross as much as $20 million. Sunshine State, armed with solid reviews, went unnoticed at the box office and is rated 3.4/5 by the everyday voters at Yahoo's film site. What is it about Sayles that makes critics and film buffs praise him, while simultaneously causing him to drop off the radar with audiences?

Complex question, which has sociological as well as cinematic explanations.

1. Politics. Sayles is your basic old New Deal humanist liberal kind of guy, fighting those old causes in his own uncompromised way. Because he works outside of the Hollywood system, he can say whatever the hell he wants to. Those inside the Hollywood system, including most critics, are equally liberal, but most filmmakers are constrained by a system which places less value on politics than on "return on investment". In short, Sayles gets to say what everyone else would like to say. Mainstream filmgoers (1) aren't as passionate about causes, and  (2) when they do care about causes, they are much farther to the right than Hollywood. The film and literature community represents an extremely far left segment of the population.

Hollywood insiders like his good movies because they like the things he is saying. They like his bad movies because his name is attached to them, and they like him. A classic case in point is the laughably bad Dolph Lundgren movie, Men of War. Arguably the worst movie ever made, as illogical and sloppy as any script ever written, some people actually praise it at IMDb because Sayles wrote it, or people think he did. (I hope he did not). Hollywood will keep forgiving good liberals forever. I don't object to his politics. In fact, I liked his movies better when he was more passionate about his beliefs, like his first feature, The Return of the Secaucus Seven.  But where I separate from most of the critics is that I don't think boring stuff that we approve should be rated higher than boring stuff we dispute.

2. Style. Passionate, intellectual film buffs don't crave structure and action the way mainstream filmgoers do. They are more likely to relish complex characterization, and to embrace an uncontrived realism. In other words, it doesn't bother the buffs if Sayles's films are filled with a large cast of normal people talking about everyday matters, or if there seem to be five unrelated plots, or if "nothing happens", or if the film just meanders off and stops in the middle of nowhere. The average filmgoer isn't as likely as the buffs to like a slice of life drama with no beginning, middle, or end.

3. Frankly, Sayles is overrated by critics. He has some great positives as a filmmaker and these positives, coupled with his simpatico world view, cause his admirers to overlook massive liabilities.

It is not easy to be a writer/director. Stop and think about all the things you need to be good at. As a writer you need to be good at structure, economy, dialogue, emotion, characterization, etc. As a director, you need to understand music, editing, cinematography, set design, atmosphere, etc.  It is virtually impossible to be good at all of those things, and it is almost an exercise in egomania to try. A good auteur has to be realistic about his own strengths and weaknesses. Sayles is not.

Sayles's greatest weakness is dialogue. In fact, he is not merely below average at it, but virtually clueless. Here is how Sayles would write a scene with Lincoln and an associate.

Associate: Why are we here?

Lincoln: Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.

Associate: Is this a good idea?

Lincoln: It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.  The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

Associate: Then we are here to remember the past?

Lincoln: It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

Associate: Oh. I see.

You probably think I am kidding or exaggerating, but I am not. That is exactly how Sayles writes scenes. Somebody colorful delivers a long, articulate speech, somebody else with no character or color at all interrupts once in a while with a couple of meaningless words to give the illusion that it is a dialogue. In the film's opening scene, Alan King is a colorful, mysterious land developer. His associates are there only so that he is not speaking into the camera, but he may as well be Hamlet in an aside to the audience.

In the beginning there was nothing.


Worse than wilderness. Endless raw acreage. Land infested with crocodiles.

(correcting) Alligators!

Alligators, crocodiles ... if you're talking about retirement bungalows, that's not a selling point. Mosquitoes that would strip you to the bone.


Swamplands they were asking ten cents an acre for. This was worse. The old Ninnees and Seminoles said- "you shouldn't go there".

But we bought it!

We bought it because we knew. We weren't selling land. I mean what's land? A patch of dirt? A tree? Who cares?

Farmers care.

Farmers! Farmers are for TV ads - people with tractors, amber waves of grain - they shoot it all in Canada. I'm talking about certified public accountants from Toledo, with a fixed pension and a little nest egg, who don't wanna spend their golden years trekking through slush. Dreams are what you sell ... concepts. You sell sunshine. You sell orange groves. You sell gentle breezes wafting through the palm trees.

There were palm trees?

In the brochures there were palm trees. Stately ones.

When they came down and saw it?

As long as the dredge stayed three lots ahead of the buyers, we were in like Flynn. This was the end of the earth. This was a land populated by white people who ate catfish. And almost overnight, out of the muck and the mangroves, we created ... this.

Golf courses?

Nature .... on a leash .....

That's not an extreme example. I just used it because it opens the film. As you can see, there is no dialogue. It is Alan King delivering a speech, with some unimportant anonymous guys there only to make it seem like dialogue. But it does not resemble normal interaction. When was the last time you made a long speech to your friends, and had them interrupt only with a single word or phrase prompting you to elaborate. It doesn't really work that way, does it? That is because your friends are not movie devices. They are not there simply to encourage you to make a speech. They are people like you, except with different ideas, and they would also like to express their thoughts. 



Having said that, having noted that Sayles is in about the first percentile in writing realistic dialogue, let me hasten to add that he is in the 99th percentile in writing speeches. That is a disguised monologue, not a dialogue, but it is a great monologue. It is witty, literate, and it expresses a great deal about the Alan King character in an interesting way. Moreover, it is quite even-handed because Alan King is essentially the bad guy in the story. He's the guy that Sayles disagrees with, but those words portray him fairly and do not turn him into a monster. He is shown to be a pragmatic man who, in his view, made a lot of money while he was simultaneously improving the landscape and helping people to achieve their dreams. The speech shows perfectly why Sayles is a great writer in many ways, and why he is a very poor one in other ways.

Personally, I don't think Sayles produces a very clear final edit, even in his best films. It always seems to me that too much ends up in the film that should have landed on the cutting room floor. This film is two and a half hours long, and that's a long time for a rambling unstructured meander, even when the characters are expressing interesting thoughts. In Sayles's script for Eight Men Out, I got confused by his insistence on keeping so many of the gamblers in the script as separate characters - and I've not only read the book, but probably just about every word that has ever been published on the Black Sox! The script needed to pare the gamblers down to maybe one symbolic guy, so it could concentrate on the important characters and the elements of the story that really mattered.

Mr Cranky was the critic who summed up how Sayles lack of economy hurt Sunshine State:

This is one of those ensemble cast movies, which means that there are too many characters to keep track of and by the time the film is over, you feel like you've been through a job fair at a convention center. The effect is akin to sitting through an evening of bad dinner theater as each bit character milks his or her lines to the fullest.

The San Francisco Chronicle put it another way:

An attempt at an epic. Sayles assembles a big cast and creates a mosaic of interweaving characters and story lines. But the stories are bland, the connections are incidental and the dramatic payoff is nonexistent.

My opinion - Sayles is not a great filmmaker. He would be great if he employed professionals to help him through realistic dialogue and editing, but he is not now, even at his very best. He is a great talent with a lack of self-awareness, and Emperor Sayles will never gain that awareness because the majority of critics will not tell him that he is naked.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • widescreen anamorphic 1.85:1.

  • no meaningful features

What does all this mean to you? If you are a fan of Sayles's movies, Sunshine State is not his best, but is not a bad one, so you'll enjoy it. If you don't like rambling, talky movies, no matter how clever the words, then it's not for you. In other words, it's pretty much the same as any other Sayles film. Hollywood liberals and critics, and people who like the kind of movies those people like, will love it. I liked it, too. On the other hand, mainstream audiences will simply never see it, and if they happen to stumble upon it on cable, will be bored to tears until they switch the channel. Like many people, I wish there was some commercial potential for this kind of material, that more people liked this kind of sober, thoughtful film. But wishes aren't horses, and beggars still walk.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 3/4, 3.5/5. James Berardinelli was pretty much the only critic in the world to score the film this low.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 7.2/10. Yahoo voters 3.4/5
  • with their dollars: made for a modest $5 million dollars, it grossed only $3 million in the USA, peaking at 79 screens.

England votes ...

  • UK consensus: According to The Guardian, the British critics probably gave it the best reviews of any film this year. Their estimate: Daily Mail 10/10, Daily Telegraph 8/10, Independent 8/10, The Guardian 8/10, The Observer 9/10, The Times 9/10, The Sun 7/10, The Express 8/10

IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, C. See last paragraph above.

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