“It is unfortunate that the film was so uneven and incomplete, because the subject matter is one that a lot of audiences can relate to.”
by Bethany Rose
Decoding Annie Parker is really two stories. The driving story of the film is that of Annie Parker, a wife and mother who deals with cancer in multiple ways, including her own struggles to beat the disease. The secondary story is that of Dr. Mary-Claire King, who researched genetic links in cancer even when her theories and methods were scoffed at. Unfortunately, instead of feeling like one film with a subplot, or two stories intertwined in a thought-provoking way, Decoding Annie Parker feels like two separate films thrown together.
The connection between the two stories is clear. Dr. King’s research could provide Annie with answers to her own theories on cancer, while also potentially providing a cure for at least one strain of the deadly disease. But other than that obvious connection, along with a scene that bookends the film and features both Dr. King and Annie, the two stories feel strangely disparate. Most of the scenes featuring Dr. King or her research team disrupt the film’s cadence, even though that story is potentially the more interesting of the two shown in the film.
It feels almost cruel to call Annie’s story boring, and boring isn’t really the word that best describes it. Early in the film, the quote, “My life was a comedy. I just had to learn how to laugh,” appears onscreen, attributed to Annie Parker. This concept informs at least part of the film’s failure. In an effort to make a film about cancer as bearable (in the sense of not being utterly depressing) as possible, humor is injected in the script. It’s not that humor can’t work in a film about a serious subject, but the sporadic attempts at comedy in this film just came off as awkward. One recurring joke involved a socially inept character billed only as “Funeral Home Guy.” He appears at three funerals in the film, each time looking for love. He has no other role in the film except to show up at the funerals and inappropriately ask grieving women out. Had this film been a full-on comedy or farce, then the character might have worked, but in Decoding Annie Parker, his scenes feel like a neon sign pointing back to the opening quote, just in case the audience was forgetting to laugh at Annie’s situation.
Another issue with the two plots is the amount of characters needed to portray each one. Annie’s story includes her family, her loves, her friends, and hospital staff. Dr. King’s story involves a whole different medical staff. While there are certainly more characters in the Annie plot, there are still far too many characters in the Dr. King plot considering the small amount of time dedicated to that story. Don’t get attached to any of the characters, as they will likely disappear every fifteen minutes or so. With the exception of Annie, very few characters do much to further the plot. Even Dr. King, who should figure in as an important piece of the puzzle, is relegated to a handful of quick scenes that only seem to serve as reminders that she was a woman who did something important. But there’s far too little time devoted to the incredibly important research she conducted, almost devaluing her role. In her first appearance in the film, she almost comes off as cold, and she is hardly given time to shake off that reputation.
The film also covers a lot of time. There are some scenes that go back as far as Annie’s childhood. The film also covers over a decade of time in Annie’s life and Dr. King’s research. So not only is there an overcrowded cast, but there are often time jumps, from just a few seconds to years ahead (or back) in time. The jumps in time don’t always work, and sometimes create a sped up version of events that perhaps should have had more time. Time was particularly unkind to Annie’s sister, Joan. As Annie, Joan, and Louise spend a lighter moment in the kitchen, joking about post-pregnancy sex, Joan suddenly stops laughing and runs from the room. As Annie runs to console her crying sister, it is difficult to concentrate on the turn of events as it seems a bit too sudden and out of place.
One character who does inexplicably get a large chunk of screen time is Paul, Annie’s first husband and father of her son. While he is in the film more than most of the supporting cast, don’t mistakenly assume his character will be more developed than any of them. In his first part of the story, he is perhaps part of the comic relief that Annie realized she had in her life. An aspiring musician who makes a living as a pool cleaner in Toronto, he often does no more than dance around aimlessly and have sex with Annie. It’s not really clear if he’s a good or a bad husband, or a good or a bad father. He has his moments of both, but more focus is put on his changing looks, (during a new phase in his musical career, Annie wonders if he’ll ever stop wearing eyeliner) than on his meaning to Annie.
The film is touted as the “mostly” true story of Annie, and that doesn’t come as a surprise. Most films based on true stories dramatize events, create character amalgamations and leave out some of the more tedious details. But I couldn’t help but wonder if only the true events of Annie’s life had been portrayed, would there have been more time for the Dr. King plot? Was the true story of a breakthrough in cancer research that boring that it had to be shrunk down to fill not even a quarter of the film? And if there is no hiding the fact that the film’s events are only “mostly” true anyway, why not embellish some of Dr. King’s story, and make the film at least feel more even? For a film that should have been straightforward, it left me with too many questions that I shouldn’t have been asking.
It is unfortunate that the film was so uneven and incomplete, because the subject matter is one that a lot of audiences can relate to. Even with improved cancer treatments and survival rates, families across America are still dealing with this disease in some way. Annie’s story could have been an inspiration to many of these families, and I don’t want to say that there aren’t inspiring moments. And even though there wasn’t an opportunity for a lot of standout performances in the crowded film, at least it is crowded with a lot of talented performers who attempt to make the most of their limited screen time.