Things We Lost in the Fire is the sort of deliberately-paced, melodramatic family tear-jerker that seems to usually drive the Academy wild. With a bit more cohesion and, more importantly, a lot more box office dollars this film may have gone somewhere.

Which isn’t to say I particularly liked it. I found it decent at best and strangely distant for a film that relies so much on heavy emotion. And I think a lot of that is because almost all of the characters felt wrong.

The film follows Halle Berry’s Audrey, a widow after her husband is murdered, and her two children. It turns out that Brian, the dead husband played in flashbacks by David Duchovny, was pretty much a saint that everybody loved. His childhood friend is Jerry, a down-on-his-luck drug addict played by Benicio Del Toro. Brian has always supported Jerry despite Audrey’s wishes. After Brian’s death she decides to take Jerry in, I guess as sort of a nod to her husband’s kindness.

Jerry ends up becoming like the surrogate Brian to everyone in Brian’s life and the film becomes sort of unintentionally creepy. There’s will they or won’t they tension with Audrey, Brian’s neighborhood pal insists Jerry go running with him like Brian used to, and Jerry gets involved in the children’s lives. Throughout it all I found myself connecting only with unstable, distant, addicted Jerry. With every conflict we’re supposed to be following Jerry’s internal struggle but really all I saw in him was what I was thinking, which was, “This is really weird, right??”

The film’s director is the Dane Susanne Bier, whose 2006 “After the Wedding” scored a Foreign Language Oscar nod. The earlier film had a more compelling human drama, but its characters suffered in the same way in that they acted really oddly. Again, not necessarily unnaturally but more in that it’s surprising that in neither film no one takes a moment to say, “Wait, this whole thing is pretty creepy.” She also has this weird technique of zooming way in on an actor’s eyes, which I found distracting.

It’s also funny how a movie released just in October can feel so outdated, which in this case adds to the tragedy:
-Brian was in the real estate business. In a flashback he visits Jerry, who asks him if the Fed raising rates will hurt his business. No, Brian says, because people will keep on refinancing.
-Brian’s running buddy wants to give Jerry a leg up, so he helps get him a job… as a mortgage broker.
-Brian and Audrey’s daughter talks about how much she loves the Seattle SuperSonics.
That family can’t catch a damn break!

I found a lot to knock about this movie, but I’d still put it around a B-, so I really didn’t dislike it. Del Toro is terrific and he gives yet another Oscar-caliber performance. I would’ve had no problem with him sneaking into the Best Actor category over Tommy Lee Jones or Johnny Depp. It’s a very melodramatic movie but it’s not overly sappy and it earns most of its emotional moments. One little note that I liked a lot is that a Halle Berry/ David Duchovny marriage is clearly interracial; their kids are mixed and her black brother shows up frequently. But this is never mentioned, it’s just accepted and I found that to be refreshing.