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Nice Try, Magellan

June 8, 2005, 12:00 am
Off the Map gets lost in its own magic.

There is undoubtedly a great deal of magic and charm in the wilds of New Mexico. Even in what passes for a crowd it's easy to feel hidden. Thirty years ago, with less development, tourists and ***image1***Hollywood stars walking the streets than today, the Groden family lives an isolated life in the wilderness outside of Taos, getting by on the abundant magic and charm of their surroundings.

The Grodens-mother Arlene (Joan Allen), father Charley (Sam Elliot) and daughter Bo (Valentina de Angelis)-begin the film under the cloud of Charley's depression and Bo's longing to leave her rural home for a more normal life. The outside world soon arrives on their doorstep in the form of William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost), an IRS representative come to audit the family. Gibbs is surprised to learn the family has virtually no money, surviving on wild game, fruit and vegetable preserves and getting lucky at the county dump. Soon, after a bout of fever caused by a bee sting, Gibbs finds himself smitten with his new surroundings and a part of the Groden family.

The film begins with an adult Bo (Amy Brenneman) narrating in a verbose style that betrays the film's roots as a stage production. Like much
of Mike Nichols' Closer, this element never achieves independence from its source material, continually coming back to disrupt the film's narrative flow.

It's through the eyes of 11 year-old Bo, though, which the bulk of the story is told. Bo is a child wise beyond her years-smart, curious and occupying her own world within the isolated one of her family. De Angelis is a natural at blending a child's curiosity and wisdom with an adult's jaded worldview. Like Brenneman's narration, though, her performance sometimes seems better suited to the stage than the screen.

Allen falls comfortably into her role as the free-spirited Arlene but it's Sam Elliot's performance that steals the show. Charley sits motionless through the early part of the film, staring in ***image2***silence at nothing. The film is well underway before he shows any sign of life and even farther along before he speaks. His depression feels real-unexplained and so all-consuming it cripples the viewer as well as the characters, but Charley's unwillingness to seek help soon becomes frustrating and the initial affection for him begins to wear thin. This reaction typifies much of the film-the plot lines continue to hum along pleasantly along really going anywhere. By the time the film is over it's worth asking what, if anything, the sporadic series of funny, touching moments amounts to?

Trying to sell an image of New Mexico as a transformative place, the film forces the stuffed-shirt Gibbs into the role of inspired painter with "a brief but brilliant career" after he gazes out at the endless wilderness. While there is truth to this notion of potential transformation, the film fails to convince by simply stating "New Mexico is a powerful place" and counting on images of the beautiful landscape to fill in the blanks which would have been better served by a capable plot.