by Philip Price
There was a time between the break of the new millennium and about three years in where it seemed as if Halle Berry would be an unstoppable force, destined for greatness as she became an X-Men (or woman), took the role of a Bond girl and mixed her big budget affairs in with smaller films that grabbed her Oscar nominations and the eventual first best actress trophy for an African-American woman. Things seemed to be going better than perfect and audiences were willing to forgive interesting misfires like “Swordfish” and “Gothika” (at least she was trying to be versatile, right?) but then she made “Catwoman” and it seems ever since the actress has been trying to regain that credibility she possessed for only a brief amount of time. She has never seemed to simply accept her fate as Cuba Gooding Jr. so clearly has, but instead, continues to make films she seems to hope will make her that award winning actress again, serious dramas with heavy subject matter, but the problem has always been that these choices are obvious and not organic. They are pure bait it seems, even as a part of the bigger than her “Cloud Atlas” it sometimes seemed she was only present because she thought it might have a shot at garnering awards attention while the production at hand here, which has somehow managed to be delayed for four years, makes it clear the place Berry was in not too long ago and now. Maybe though, now, with another shot at the Storm role lined up this summer and a box office hit last year with “The Call,” she will try to find a middle ground that doesn't see her putting on an acting workshop to try and earn the praise of her peers, but simply allows the movies she finds herself in to take form around what she feels is suitable for the role and if Oscar comes a knocking, more power to her. Of course, I could be completely off and this fluctuation in her popularity, credibility and profitability could simply be based on her tendency of which scripts to choose, but if “Frankie & Alice” proves anything it is at least that Berry is ambitious and willing to keep on truckin' even when the tide is against her.
In “Frankie & Alice,” Berry portrays a real-life woman who suffered from what, on the surface, seems to be an extreme case of multiple personalities but is diagnosed as dissociative identity disorder (DID). Now, I went into the film not really knowing what this was about or where it would be going and so as we meet Berry's Frankie as she struts her stuff as a go-go dancer in the early ‘70s I assumed, given the title, it would be about a pair of girlfriends who team-up to somehow do away with the scum of the world they encounter nightly at this strip club so when Frankie ends up going home with the DJ from the same club she works at and in the middle of the heat of passion begins to hear a baby cry and splits into a manic fit of rage where she threatens the guy who thought he was going to get lucky, smacks him over the head and then runs into the streets it was obvious there was going to be more to this than I imagined. Lucky for Frankie she is treated by Dr. Oz (Stellan Skarsgård) upon initial inspection who, though busy, seems to have an immediate interest in the psychology of what might be happening in Frankie's mind and what might be causing these what at first appear to be lapses in memory. Things don't begin to really take form though until Frankie is prompted by her spiteful sister Maxine (Chandra Wilson) to go to the wedding of a childhood friend where clearly some issues lie. Their mother Edna (Phylicia Rashad) is quick to silence her younger daughter and even quicker to brush any mention or notice of the past under the rug. I was intrigued, I was taken by this mystery and even more engaged by how we were going to seemingly piece together the events of Frankie's past giving us both answers on why these personalities exist, but also why they feel the need to compete with one another.
In this regard, the film is nothing less than a fine example of how a basic human story can be brought to the screen and how it allows the simplicities of the details to become the hooks of why an audience finds themselves pulled into the situation. This is a very human story, but it deals in topics that can be seen as taboo when not presented correctly as well and that is where the picture runs into some issues both in general quality of the final product and in terms of performance. Director Geoffrey Sax doesn't seem one to flaunt what he has on his hands as the enlisting of Skarsgård gives the film a more accurate tone of what he was likely going for and the restrained camera work and more straightforward style keep the emphasis not on how the story is told, but what story it is telling. It is a film to be re-visited, for sure, as it will likely have more and more impact as you go back and see more of the details that both foreshadow and highlight how Frankie dealt (or did not) with the stress of having multiple people operating within the same brain.
The relationship that forms between Oz and Frankie is one of inherent chemistry, where we learn just enough about the good doctor beforehand that we understand an interesting case that is cause for real investment is just what he needs in that moment and Frankie needs someone she can trust, something far too scarce in her life where everyone seems either to use her or shelter her from the truth of what she really is. Skarsgård brings the necessary weight to the film and his role that allow this to feel of a more substantial place in our order of priority than it would had Berry been paired with an unknown or less credible actor. Skarsgård operates as a man recently divorced, in a routine of sorts that never amounts to anything more than more thinking and much of the time with nothing to focus that brain activity on other than jazz. Frankie gives him this opportunity to focus, in essence to move on and while this bond is made explicitly cheesy to a point there is pressure to bring something special into each of their lives every time they meet, but instead allow their situations to compliment one another to the point they feel a warmth long absent from each of their lives.
Let's be honest though, we can well assume that since this was a passion project of Berry's that she saw it as prime opportunity to show she still had what it was that made her worthy of that Oscar and to be honest, I'm not arguing with her. She puts forth a presence and complexity that is needed to portray both a strong African-American woman in the 1970's while also eliciting the necessary sting to portray a white supremacist from Texas that never feels as hokey as one might imagine given that preface before seeing the film. These performances keep the story afloat though for as deep and integral as the events of Frankie's past are and how they inform her current state of being they never seem as vital or as highly-regarded in terms of the film itself. The acting is in the forefront while the specifics of the drama fall by the wayside in the perspective of how the film made me feel after it concluded the first time. Like I said earlier, though I didn't find this groundbreaking or even necessarily great it is a solid picture that I would like to watch again at some point because I feel the points of the plot may better be realized once the audience already knows the full details of the story and what is actually going on with Frankie. It is hard to describe why “Frankie & Alice” seems little more than acceptable when it clearly has the ambition and power behind it to be more than the Lifetime movie some may peg it as, but while the presence of Berry and Skarsgård alone give it that heightened sense of importance and pedigree the film feels adequate for the story it took on without rising to match what some might consider an exceptional if not showy performance from Berry.