September 25, 2009 at 1:00 am

Tom Long Film Review: 'The Burning Plain' -- GRADE: B-

Familiar plot consumes 'Burning Plain'

Charlize Theron plays a restaurant manager in the film that eventually weaves together three storylines. (Magnolia Pictures)

Guillermo Arriaga, the director of "The Burning Plain," keeps writing, and now directing, the same movie.

It's a pretty good movie, if you're into heart-wrenching tragedy and puzzle-solving plotlines, but once you've seen one of them, things start to look awfully familiar in the others.

Arriaga wrote "21 Grams," "Babel" and the criminally under-appreciated "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," so we're talking pretty high-class stuff here, with big-name stars and Oscar nominations attached. "Plain" is his first directing effort, but it holds up alongside those predecessors. Still, despite the fine performances involved, it's doubtful the film will get the attention those others reaped, simply because this road has been traveled.

Typically, Arriaga's screenplay follows separate storylines which at first baffle but eventually come together. Charlize Theron plays Sylvia, the manager of a high-end restaurant looking for love in all the wrong places. Meanwhile Kim Basinger plays Gina, a breast cancer survivor having an affair somewhere along the Mexican border, running off to a desert trailer for quickies while abandoning her family.

The true mommy figure in that family is oldest daughter Mariana (breakout star Jennifer Lawrence, a real find) who, in her own storyline, strikes up a teen-exploration relationship with Santiago (J.D. Pardo).

Arriaga keeps his jigsaw plot under control, although after a while you guess where it's going. As always, things are relentlessly dismal.

And as always, Arriaga is dealing with how the dead affect the living, how simple acts of fate echo down the decades and is holding out the hope that redemption is always possible, or at least worth a shot.

It's serious stuff, intended for serious movie people. The only problem is, serious movie people have already been there, done that.

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