Stupidity Miscast as Parental Love: `Before' a Downer for Streep, Neeson

Article excerpt

"Before and After" is held hostage to a miserably contrived aftermath to a crime. Presumably transposed from the source material, a novel by Rosellen Brown, this acutely defective "after" depicts a sympathetic set of parents - Meryl Streep as pediatrician Carolyn Ryan and Liam Neeson as sculptor Ben Ryan - behaving every which way but intelligently when their teen-age son, Jacob, vanishes soon after his girlfriend is found bludgeoned to death.

The setting is a small, wintry town in the Berkshires called Hyland, composed of bits and pieces of Lee, Tyringham, Great Barrington and Lenox, Mass. From time to time, director Barbet Schroeder and screenwriter Ted Tally sow confusion by suggesting that the Ryans face victimization by lynch-law types lurking among the townfolk.

Mainly they refuse to distinguish between imperatives of family solidarity and prudent conduct - to the detriment of the Ryans, who are meant to be forgiven as well-meaning blunderers.

The case for forgiveness gets clobbered from the outset. Ben, a hothead who works on massive iron structures in his studio, a renovated barn, insists on destroying possibly incriminating evidence found in the trunk of the car Jacob was driving before his disappearance - a bloodstained towel, a pair of gloves, a jack and crowbar. Not so cleverly burning the perishable items, Ben rather more cleverly welds the "solid" evidence to a work in progress.

Mild-mannered Carolyn lets herself be ruled by Ben's crackpot impulsiveness, which the film stubbornly equates with selfless, absolute father love . Given that misconception, it surprises me that the release wasn't delayed until Father's Day to enhance the insult.

The Ryans' foolish maneuvers can be ascribed to fond ignorance until the fugitive prodigal turns up several weeks later, in the withdrawn and extremely slight presence of Edward Furlong, who hasn't been aging too manfully since his debut in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day. …