It's a yeasty subject, promising vintage John Sayles: the despoiling of Florida by predatory real-estate developers, and its fallout on the locals. As in his 1991 City of Hope, Sunshine State conveys this socially acute theme through a mosaic of stories, with the webbing interconnecting them casually disclosed as the film unfolds. His heart, as always, is with the little folk who get steamrollered by Commerce. But while you could never fault Sayles for speedy exposition, the donkey-cart pace makes you want to whip the thing along. And monochrome performances by the central figures mute the dramatic impact.
As a running gallows-humor joke, one employee of the realty company (Gordon Clapp) continually attempts suicide on the anointed land, whether by a botched hanging, or with a buzz saw (he's rudely interrupted). Meanwhile, his wife, played with perfect vapidity by Mary Steenburgen--and oblivious to his efforts--is obsessed with the annual Buccaneer Day Pageant. Marly (Edie Falco), a hard-bitten bottle-blonde and motel owner, duels with developers with one hand, and tries to reel in a straying husband with the other. She falls into an affair with a decent employee of the realtors (Timothy Hutton), but the timing is off, and he's on his way before she can ever drop her perpetual sneer. Marly is somewhat vindicated when her mother (Jane Alexander), a local drama teacher, succeeds--implausibly, it must be said--in aceing the developers in a deal for the motel.
A key story concerning a mother/daughter rift plays like a retread. Desiree (Angela Bassett) arrives at the home of her widowed mother (Mary Alice), doctor husband (James McDaniel) in tow, after having been sent away as a girl to conceal a pregnancy. That by film's end they've forged an uneasy truce comes as no surprise. Sayles hits pay dirt, though, when Desiree collides with the very fellow who knocked her up--and who is now prepared to betray his own people in the black community in order to cash in on the land grab. Interspersed throughout are scenes of the locals vainly protesting the plans of developers run amok--until the tractors start breaking ground, and plow up skeletons of the American Indians who got there first.
Like few directors, Sayles excels at conveying people at work. He draws laughs from the spiels of developers, who come on like sweet-talking piranhas. But he's careful not to load the dice: Timothy Hutton's character may work for the baddies, but he himself is just a schlepper trying to get through the day. And Desiree's old paramour has signed on with the oppressor. Sayles also nails Florida cheesiness, from the alligator wrestlers, to the low-rent pirates in Buccaneer Day, to the 'Weeki Wachee Mermaids' who perform in a restaurant aquatic tank. Yet, in the key female roles, the actors repeat a single note--righteous indignation from Bassett, sour defeat from Falco--which reduces them to caricatures. And Alexander needs to take down her performance by about 100 degrees. The film is framed by Alan King and and his philosopher-duffers pontificating from the golf green, delivering such homilies as 'a golf course is nature on a leash.' The low-voltage humor of these scenes never quite rises to the occasion. Nor does this well intentioned film quite find its momentum.