In a bizarre performance that seems a pastiche of his previous work, Spacey plays Quoyle, a man known only by his last name and his superhuman ability to overact while appearing totally emotionless.
The movie opens with Quoyle being thrown into a lake by his father. Sadly, though this scene is poorly executed and rather trite, it returns incessantly throughout the movie, a symbol of everything that's wrong with everything. Or maybe it's just a symbol of how much this movie is in love with itself. It keeps saying "Hey, look at this deep and meaningful and really very sad opening sequence ... isn't it just so special you could cry, or maybe nominate me for an Academy Award?"
After Quoyle dries off, he gets a series of meaningless jobs and marries an evil woman who leaves him with a beautiful daughter. This is all a set-up for just how sad and out-of-control his life is, and gosh, we feel sorry for him, because he keeps making big, sad eyes at the camera.
Now, big, sad eyes work for cute child actors, but here's a newsflash: Kevin Spacey is not a cute child actor. He's a middle-aged man, and ferchrissakes, he should act like one. It's as though he took acting lessons from Haley Joel Osment for this film.
After Quoyle's wife decides to emulate her husband's beloved opening sequence by drowning in a river (which, shockingly, brings back flashbacks of Quoyle's unpleasant river experience ... I hope it shows up again later in the film!) he moves away to his family's ancestral home in Newfoundland, which, sadly, is right on the ocean. It turns out that the ocean is full of water, which brings back memories of Quoyle's difficult first swimming experience.
Judi Dench does her standard, high-quality Judi Dench act as Quoyle's great aunt Agnis, and she, Quoyle and Quoyle's preternaturally cute daughter Bunny set up house in the aging homestead. Quoyle then gets a job as a reporter at the local paper, in a scene that seems culled from a dozen other movies: The owner of the paper "gets a good feeling" about Quoyle and hires him in spite of his complete lack of experience. You know, just like it works in the real world when a 47-year-old college dropout applies for any job.
Shockingly, Quoyle becomes a favorite writer at the paper, though, mysteriously, he is given the task of writing the shipping news, and, in a surprising twist, writing the shipping news involves going down to the water every day. If you come into the movie late, just as Quoyle gets this job, I should alert you to the fact that when Quoyle sees water, it brings up an uncomfortable childhood memory.
Luckily, the supporting cast takes up some of the slack from Spacey, who gives them a little room to work when he stares off into the horizon with his big, sad eyes. Rhys Ifans is particularly fun as the stranded Brazilian who writes the international news column, and Pete Postlethwaite is passably professional as the paper's pusillanimous principal pencil pusher. I mean, he's competent as Quoyle's cowardly co-worker. I mean, at least he doesn't remind Quoyle of a bad swimming experience.
Julianne Moore plays Quoyle's love interest, a woman whose spouse has also gone and left her with a young child. In her case, it's a son, so she's like the diametric opposite of Quoyle, in case you didn't get their connection. Usually, Moore is a pretty good actress, and she does some things very well here. She nails the accent, and she largely shows up Spacey in their scenes together, but she also has a tendency to take the role so seriously that it occasionally becomes comic, with the deep soulful looks and the intense staring. One wonders what sort of horrid childhood experience she must be remembering.
One of the best features of The Shipping News is the gorgeous Newfoundland landscapes, which are carefully captured by cinematographer Oliver Stapleton in foggy, wide-screen shots that do a much better job of conveying loneliness and loss than Spacey does. Director Lasse Hallström started out as a cinematographer himself, and his films usually feature beautiful, wide-open images of natural settings. Stapleton doesn't add anything new to Hallström's usually gorgeous imagery, but he doesn't take anything away, either.
I think some people will enjoy being emotionally manipulated by The Shipping News, but you have to enjoy it in spite of the fact that it keeps loudly announcing just how and when it's going to manipulate you. The music is obviously ominous, the script is overly profound, and Spacey is really annoying. Still, I'd highly recommend this film to anyone who has a disturbing childhood memory of being thrown in a lake. After watching this, I'm sure the panic attacks and obsessive fixation on water will be replaced by a giddy boredom.