Film Review: Decoding Annie Parker

What might have been a great, fascinating real-life medical detective story suffers from a serious plot imbalance and one-sided character focus.

Death seems to surround Annie Parker (Samantha Morton), a Toronto woman whose mother and sister have succumbed to cancer. She lives in dread of this seemingly contagious disease and is devastated when she contracts breast cancer herself. Meanwhile, in Berkeley, geneticist Mary-Claire King (Helen Hunt) is obsessed by and experimenting with the research which would uncover the hereditary links she believes are to be found in cancer. Annie, ignorant of any of this, sets out to try to understand her illness, reading what she can and making genetic models, but her preoccupation with the disease, as well as the physical effects of cancer, drive her loser musician husband Paul (Aaron Paul) away from her.

Writer-director Steve Bernstein tackles a big, important subject in Decoding Annie Parker and is to be lauded for the seriousness and sincerity of his efforts. It's anything but a surefire commercial prospect, and will likely be most interesting to those living with cancer, and the people around them. The dual plotline should be a propulsively parallel device, driving the film excitingly, but Bernstein's decision to favor and focus on Annie's story tips the scales into pat, unexciting TV disease-movie-of-the-week territory. Scientific research can indeed be an exciting subject on the screen, but the fewer scenes depicting it largely consist of a white-coated Hunt barking officiously at her staff and many medical doubters, while poor, innocent and oh-so-sweet victim Annie suffers and suffers. Attempts to leaven the darkness of her story with black humor, like a mortuary employee forever hitting on mourners at funerals, seem particularly flat-footed. Annie does finally have an interaction with Mary-Claire as a result of her correspondence with her, with a suggestion that her own homemade work has been helpful in the other woman's discoveries, but this intriguing aspect is barely touched upon.

One aches to feel sympathy for Annie, but Morton makes her such a drab yet saintly sad sack that you may find your patience with her waning, especially when she forgives and comforts her jerk of a husband, who not only cheats on her with her best friend but becomes ill himself. As mentioned, oh-so-serious Hunt is given a dearth of material—we discover nothing about the woman's emotional life—and basically could have phoned in her performance; it's nothing we haven't seen before. Paul (in a ridiculous fake wig in his early rock ’n’ roll scenes) will do himself no post-“Breaking Bad” career favors with his unsympathetic role as a wintry Toronto pool cleaner, a profession meant to symbolize the man's dire haplessness. Rashida Jones brings a small spark as a concerned receptionist, but the freshest performance is given by little Benjamin Stockham as Annie's son; his tantrum-y scene with her eventually consoling him proves far more moving than all the deathly sturm und drang surrounding them.

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