Spinning Into Butter has taken a few twists and turns on the road to today’s release. Shooting began in October 2005, back when Catherine Crier still had her live show on Court TV, which is part of the movie. It ran aground on financial difficulties but was completed, and was first shown at the Cannes Film Market (not the festival itself) in 2007. It played the second-tier festival circuit and according to the Internet Movie Database bowed in Australia last year—on DVD. Indie distributor Screen Media Films is giving the campus-set drama the old college try in theaters but I suspect home video is its natural market, even with Sarah Jessica Parker on the marquee.

There’s neither sex nor city to be found in Spinning Into Butter, which is based on a play by Rebecca Gilman. The Alabama-born Gilman was the toast of the stage in Chicago, New York, and London from 1999-2002, with a run of successful shows that tackled difficult themes. Boy Gets Girl, which played Off Broadway in 2001, is a chilling piece about stalking. Philip Seymour Hoffman directed stage debutante Anna Paquin and Burn Notice star Jeffrey Donovan in the trailer park melodrama The Glory of Living, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2001. 2002’s Blue Surge, in which a cop falls in love with a hooker, was less well-received, and though Gilman keeps the faith (she hasn’t parlayed her accolades into lucrative movie and TV gigs) her work has been out of the spotlight since then.

Spinning Into Butter, which she co-adapted with Doug Atchison (the writer-director of Akeelah and the Bee), is a memento of the play that started her hot streak, which I saw at Lincoln Center in 2000. But the briskly paced show has been diluted and Lifetime-d. Gilman’s topic is racism, and the ineffectiveness of political correctness as a response to its corrosion; the play is an antidote to the usual bromides and earnestness that surrounds the topic, and I remember it being rudely funny in spots. If there’s a laugh in the movie, I missed it. The play risks your affection; the movie gives you a backrub. It opens with a Maya Angelou quote—“People do not remember what you say or what you do, over the years, but they never forget how you made them feel”—that pretty much signals that lines will not be crossed.

Gilman based the play on an incident that occurred at Middlebury College, her alma mater, in 1983. Parker plays Sarah Daniels, the dean of students at liberal-minded Belmont College, a small and insular Vermont campus rocked when racist notes are found pinned to the door outside a black student’s room. Sarah, who came to the mostly white Belmont from a mostly black college in Chicago, knows the realpolitik of race: In the first scene, we see her persuading a Nuyorican student who’s up for a scholarship to change his ethnicity to Puerto Rican on the application form, as she realizes that the scholarship advisory board won’t know what a New York Puerto Rican is. Thinking they can smooth things over with campus-wide forums on race are Belmont’s dean (Miranda Richardson) and the head of the humanities department (Beau Bridges), but these well-meaning gestures only aggravate the situation.

The dean turns to Sarah to solve the escalating problem by writing a ten-point bulletin to eliminate racism at the school, a futile assignment she shares with the friendly black TV reporter (Mykelti Williamson) covering the story. But in concocting her answers, Sarah is forced to confront her own distrust of blacks, and she and the reporter trade barbs and insults in a loaded scene.

The sequence plays as I remember it from the show, with one major difference. Outside of Patrick, the Nuyorican student, all the characters in the show are white. (Hope Davis played Sarah in New York; Queer Eye-to-be Jai Rodriguez, Patrick.) The understanding white professor in the play has morphed into the understanding black reporter, who is trying to make a name for himself in the ultra-tolerant, but largely untested, state. (That shouldn’t be hard: The only non-white resident I saw there in February was a porter at the train station.) Onstage, you have two white people groping with their own incomprehension, which is passed on to the audience. Changing the character’s race while not changing the dialogue in their big scene stretches credibility; you expect him to slap her, or shout “TMI!”, but he shoulders it manfully, and the movie lurches on. Curiously, the campus in the movie is more racially mixed than is implied in the play, which might be expected to play a larger role in the story.

Gilman’s play is delicately threaded. Once a strand is pulled, it starts to come apart. We never see the tormented black student; the outrages perpetrated on him are only alluded to onstage. Once you put him in the movie, however, you have to deal with him more thoroughly—the film version of Doubt, where a black student kept offstage in the play is now present, has the same problem—just as you have to deal with a race riot (not in the play) that erupts once one of the forums fails. The adaptation is unfortunately hesitant, walling up some potent scenes in an unsupportive structure.

How does Spinning Into Butter otherwise fare onscreen? Not too good: Mark Brokaw is a top theater director (now Off Broadway with the farcical Distracted, starring Parker’s Sex partner Cynthia Nixon) uncertain in his film debut, which translates into a muffled movie with muzzled performances. Richardson and Bridges would have done more had their scenes had the same bite as they had originally; Parker, who co-produced, looks withdrawn, rather than frazzled, and can’t get inside a character who has been turned inside out to make her more accessible. And, try as they might, the filmmakers can’t get New York and New Jersey, where the film was shot, to look like Vermont. Unlike the tigers in the story told by Little Black Sambo, from which the piece gets its name, the movie, ponderous at just 86 minutes, doesn’t spin into butter. It just sort of congeals.

Duplicity didn’t have much trouble getting produced or distributed, but it did have a problem finding customers last weekend. It’s the kind of airily sophisticated piece that there is an audience for, an audience, anyway, that knows the meaning of the word “duplicity.” Then again, the type of picture it’s drawing on—like Charade, or Gambit—hasn’t been in vogue since the mid-’60s (forget about the awful Charade remake, The Truth About Charlie). Those were Universal releases, too, and seeing the logo come up on this one was nostalgic.

Writer-director Tony Gilroy returns from Michael Clayton in a sunnier mood, though you couldn’t guess it from the darkening look Duplicity gets from cinematographer Robert Elswit. The sinister ambiance, even when the film is flitting to and from Dubai and the Bahamas, is itself a shell game: Once the Hitchcock “MacGuffin” is on the table, it’s clear nothing terribly urgent is at stake, except, maybe, for people who share my affliction. Far be it from me to give that away, but once you know it the deadpan attitude toward all the espionage business begins to separate from what the movie truly believes in, and that is, love—which Duplicity treats as high stakes.

Julia Roberts upholds her end of the deal. I once helped her open a door, not knowing it was she, and was thanked with one of those $20 million smiles. I’ve never forgotten that personal starburst, and she unleashes the full arsenal here, teasing Clive Owen. They almost melt his patented reserve. I like Owen, and admire the way his character (a James Bond without portfolio) slips in and out of New York alleys and side entrances with ease, but he never quite decompresses into the part, and misses the humor his Children of Men co-star Michael Caine brought to Gambit. Some of it, anyway: I laughed at the way he said “FlakyFresh,” referring to a brand of frozen pizza. Maybe a second viewing will thaw him.

And I will likely return. It’s the kind of movie you can pick up again and find something new to enjoy; Clayton alumnus Tom Wilkinson again gives good monologue, and he and a fretfully scummy Paul Giamatti have a great slo-mo dustup under the opening credits. The money scene, a well-orchestrated caper as the two lovelorn ex-spies try to get their hands on the big secret in their new positions as corporate security experts, pays off. So too, does a simple, affecting sequence that has Roberts eating a lousy dinner, contemplating the aloneness of the pursuit. She participated in the slickly entertaining Ocean’s pictures, which throw away everything. This one strips away the window dressing, to reveal a beating heart.

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