If you’ve never heard of Dr. Mary-Claire King, it’s good that there’s now a movie about her greatest achievement, which is the discovery of the gene responsible for hereditary cases of breast and ovarian cancers. Before finding the proof for her longtime theory, which came surprisingly only as recent as 1990, most other doctors explained away families with multiple cancer deaths as environmental, coincidental and just plain bad luck. At the end of this movie, which is titled Decoding Annie Parker, we’re told that the discovery is one of the most important scientific breakthroughs of all time. Of course, we should have gotten that point in the preceding 90 minutes (not to say we didn’t, but then we don’t need that title). We probably should have also gotten to know this obviously wonderful and important woman of history, but it’s not really a movie about her. It’s not a biopic of a person who clearly deserves one. Instead it’s about a partly fictional woman who doesn’t.
There really is an Annie Parker, but the one “decoded” in this movie is a composite and only loosely based on her. Portrayed by Samantha Morton, hers is the life primarily followed over the course of two decades and two diagnoses of different cancers (she’s had a third since), through treatment and a mastectomy and a crumbling marriage to a wannabe rocker (Aaron Paul). Intertwined with her story, though, is a depiction of King in action with her Berkeley-based research team. She’s played by Helen Hunt and presented only in academic setting. We see nothing of her own failed marriage from the same time period or anything else about her life. We don’t even see the full extent of her work, although there is a throwaway mention of her simultaneous efforts in identifying victims of Argentina’s “Dirty War,” even if that mention is made about ten years ahead of when the efforts actually happened — I’m pretty sure it was even stated in a moment taking place before the “Dirty War” began.
Such a glaring anachronistic goof would be easily dismissed in most movies of this sort, but Decoding Annie Parker seems so intent on being about things that happened rather than being a story of things happening that I’d think it would want to get those things as right as can be. The notion of factual interests might be strange to begin with since it employs so much fictionalization, but it’s not a matter of truth so much as being true to the stiff chronology forming the narrative. Director and co-writer Steven Bernstein has everything plotted out in careful succession, to the point that most of the movie’s scenes are barely a few minutes in length and only function to show specific events in a timeline, such as when people are born and die and divorced, etc. (it’s so calculated, in fact, that I’m shocked the movie’s official synopsis gets the chronology completely wrong). The movie plays like something that is supposed to represent a person’s life and struggle, or multiple women’s perhaps, more than engage with it.
The movie does get off to a great start at least. Bernstein, who wrote the script with his son Adam and Michael Moss, doesn’t want this to be a depressing cancer drama, and for a while it’s far from it. The movie opens with voiceover narration from the Parker character (oddly it’s not Morton who we hear, making it even more like she’s a compositional mix of people) joking around and being playful with the style of her storytelling. There is constant humor in early funeral scenes and matters of sex, a bit with Aaron Paul dancing and a montage of Parker and other characters checking their breasts for lumps. The narration is soon made more sparse, though, as things get rather serious and sappy and circumstances are played more dramatically, in a choppy, TV-movie sort of way with emotional beats that are brief and explained more than shown and explored. A lot of scenes, like a cliche moment where Parker and her husband tell their son they’re getting a divorce, come across as more obligatory than actually necessary or meaningful.
And occasionally the movie returns to Berkeley to see how King is doing, even if these cutaways are rarely of substance and feel inserted just to remind us that she and the young scientists are still sitting around a table and brainstorming over the course of that 16-year study. Sometimes we merely see time passing in random ways, like when we get a montage of shots of computers changing in size through the years. Actually that one is pretty neat, but I wish there was more of it. As for how the two storylines are connected, a made-up meeting between Parker and King that plays in its entirety twice has absolutely no significance, not narratively, emotionally, historically or cinematically. We’re not trusted to just understand the indirect connection between these parallel lives and accept them for what they really are, two sides of a story of science, the why and the how (or the personal and the impersonal, the human-interest and the data-interest, the heart and the brain, etc.).
Decoding Annie Parker has an impressive ensemble of recognizable supporting players, too, including Bradley Whitford, Rashida Jones, Corey Stoll, Maggie Grace, Marley Shelton, Richard Schiff, Ben McKenzie and Alice Eve, and none of them have a whole lot to do. They’re characters developed by casting so it doesn’t appear that they’re all just roles suitable for featured extras. And that includes such people as family, best friends and love interests for the main character. It does make Parker all the more prominent a part, though, and Morton does a more than adequate job carrying the movie and all its dramatic integrity on her shoulders. Her performance is better than the movie ultimately deserves, as is Hunt’s considering how much we can see her making the effort to be a person that on paper is only a name and a lab coat.
At least Dr. King might get some greater recognition out of the existence of the movie, even if that movie doesn’t do her a full service and hardly does the viewer one either.
The Upside: Morton is great as always; the awareness aspect of the story, both historically and going forward is important; good-humored for a while
The Downside: Plays like an adaptation of an itemized list of events rather than a fluid narrative; every character feels like a placeholder; the distributor shows little care in its synopsis and marketing material errors (including an incorrectly illustrated DNA strain on the poster).
On the Side: Bernstein makes his feature directorial debut here; he’s mainly known as a cinematographer whose credits include Monster and White Chicks.