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AN ACCEPTABLE LOSS (2018) review

January 20, 2019

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written by: Joe Chappelle
produced by: Colleen Griffen
directed by: Joe Chappelle
rated: R
runtime: 102 min.
U.S. release date: October 13, 2018 (Chicago International Film Festival) and January 18, 2019 (limited theaters, YouTube, Google Play, VUDU, Amazon & VOD)

 

I didn’t get around to catching “An Acceptable Loss” during its world premiere at last fall’s Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF), but it’s been on my radar since. The only image associated with the political thriller from writer/director Joe Chappelle showed us that Jamie Lee Curtis was in it. Coincidentally, it was around the same time as she was experiencing somewhat of a career resurgence with the latest “Halloween”, which possibly piqued certain viewers curiosity since the veteran actress obviously committed to and filmed “An Acceptable Loss” prior to what become a box-office success last October. Therefore, the question is what about this story attracted Curtis and, better yet, how was it deemed worthy to premiere at an international film festival?

Well, part of that question could be answered by looking a little closer at the those  involved in making this movie. Is it mere coincidence that Chapelle directed the 1995 sequel, “Halloween: The Curse of Michael Meyers” (aka “Hall6ween”), which is one of the many sequels to John Carpenter’s “Halloween”, starring Curtis? Hard to tell if Chapelle looked up Curtis using his Halloween pedigree as an influence or if they already knew each other somehow without knowing any details, so maybe it’s just a reminder of how small the entertainment business is and that sometimes connections are shorter than six degrees.

While Chapelle went on to helm a couple other genre pictures such as 1998’s “Phantoms” and 2002’s “Skulls II”, but then immersed himself in television work, in shows like “The Wire” and “Fringe” and most recently directing many episodes of “Chicago Fire”, where he also serves as an executive producer. Perhaps this is why “An Acceptable Loss” is based in the Windy City, with the writer/director likely shooting the film while involved in the hit show.

 

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The story here follows former top U.S. security adviser, Elizabeth “Libby” Lamm (Tika Sumpter) who’s recently accepted a teaching position at Grant University (that of the fictional variety, based in Chicago, IL), where students are actively protesting her hiring at the liberal arts school. Right away out curious is piqued. What did she do to warrant such a response and why is everyone up in arms? Those answers are revealed gradually throughout the rest of the film’s runtime as we watch Libby (who speaks French, Japanese and Pashto) acclimate to her new surroundings as she sets her focus on teaching attractive classes, such as “Understanding Contemporary Warfare”.

Within those reveals we learn that Libby played a major hand in a major military operation that occurred four years prior. In the aftermath of that, she remains alert and cautious to the point of paranoia, cutting off all communication (or at least putting extreme parameters like not having a computer or cell phone – unrealistic, if you ask me) as she struggles with the scar tissue from her not-to-distant past. Memories from her past are interwoven with what is happening in Libby’s present, which is how we come to know her work with Vice President Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis), a persuasive presence who served as something of a mentor. These flashbacks also indicate why secret agent and ex-lover Adrian (Jeff Hephner) is showing up unexpectedly to intimidate Libby. It doesn’t really bode well for the storyline in the present when what is shown from the past becomes far more interesting.

Meanwhile, amid all the fervor on campus, there is a subplot focusing on one particular student, the shifty and secretive Martin (Ben Tavassoli), who seems to always be withdrawn and cold towards Jordan (locale Chicagoan Alex Weisman), his friendly gay roommate. Martin becomes interested with all things Libby, which turns into an uncomfortable obsession when he purchases video surveillance equipment (a college student with money!), breaks into her home and installs them in every room, including her bedroom. Martin becomes specifically interesting in what Libby is methodically writing in her daily journal and it appears the government is just as curious. With all these plot points in motion, ones that will inevitably collide, it’s clear that Libby will be unable to live out any semblance of normalcy.

 

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You wouldn’t know it from watching “An Acceptable Loss”, but there’s real potential for a wholly compelling character in Elizabeth “Libby” Lamm, but there are missed characterization opportunities here. I’m not about to offer rewrite notes or “how I would do it” reveals, since that can lead down a deep rabbit hole when talking about any problematic movie that pulls one out more than once during viewing. Chapelle made a movie from his screenplay that offers some interesting concepts like the internal wrestling of guilt and grief, the callous reactive, albeit believable, response from the U.S. government, and the complex motivations of one troubled student, yet all three of these concepts are ultimately delivered in a very cliche manner.

Since the dialogue and characterization reeks of cliche, especially the way in which Libby and Martin are written, it becomes especially hard to get on board with the supposed “big reveals” and it doesn’t help that just about every step of the screenplay is predictable. However, story predictability can be tolerable when you’re following characters who become more intriguing the more time spent with them. Unfortunately, the characters we spend the most screen time with here are the ones we become less intrigued by and vice versa.

It’s no surprise that the few standout scenes in “An Acceptable Loss” belong to Curtis. In the handful of times we see her show up, I couldn’t help but think how she’s been missed on the big-screen. Where her decisive and dominating portrayal of a very shrewd and manipulative character is memorable. Her sheer presence demands your attention and makes you a little nervous, all at the same time. I’m thankful for what Curtis does here, if only there was more of her character here and maybe that’s what I found myself wanting overall when “An Acceptable Loss” was over…more.

Which leads me back to the missed potential. There is an opportunity to delve deeper into just how emotionally scarred Sumpter’s Libby is, especially after it’s revealed why she’s disturbed by her past. There is also opportunity here to offer the character of Martin more than the predictable beats we wind up getting. Both Libby and Martin both have complicated internal compasses and when they cross paths it almost feels like there’s a need for them to have several conversations and different times, but that’s another movie entirely, I suppose.

The timing of the film’s release is unintentionally ironic. In an awards season which sees Christian Bale drawing a whole lot of attention and accolades (not to mention awards) for portraying former Vice President Dick Cheney, it’s kind of interesting that here’s a film that will undoubtedly draw less attention, where a woman is basically playing the Cheney role. In that case, you can easily correlate the role Sumpter is playing as the Condoleezza Rice role.

Chapelle’s original screenplay sets out to deliver a timely story, one of deceptions and paranoia that veer into potential “What-If?” real-world scenarios. The problem is the ramifications of the decisions made by individuals in power that revolve around those scenarios are never fully explored in a revealing or satisfying way. What transpires in the second half of “An Acceptable Loss” falls into formulaic territory that tend to overpower the movie, ending on an unsatisfying note.

 

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RATING: **

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