Sunset Limited

The made-for-TV movie/miniseries would be an almost completely lost art if it weren't for HBO and the British imports served up by PBS' various Masterpiece franchises. Already this year, we have a deliciously strong contender for best-of-year (and, one imagines, Emmy) honors with Masterpiece Classic's over-too-quickly Downton Abbey.

This weekend's latest entries in the HBO Films and Masterpiece Classic catalogs remind us that even these renowned entities aren't infallible.

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As usual, HBO delivers top-tier talent in The Sunset Limited, with Tommy Lee Jones (who also directs) and Samuel L. Jackson circling each other in an existential cage match that's also a master class in acting. Whether you enjoy this overlong ride depends on your tolerance for straight-up allegory.

Adapted from a play by Cormac McCarthy, this tiresome two-hander pits a cynical weary-traveler professor named White (Jones), who represents culture and learning, against an evangelical reformed con named Black (Jackson), who represents faith. If you prefer shades of gray, look elsewhere. These aren't characters, they're symbols.

Set in a drab room in a tenement where outside sounds of discord and music occasionally bleed through, this battle of souls unfolds after Black has seemingly rescued White from committing suicide by throwing himself in front of a subway train. There's probably no one better at conveying bitterly nihilistic despair than Jones, as he mutters in a cracked whisper (in the gospel according to McCarthy) "the darker picture is always the correct one." Jackson is every bit his match, declaring, "I ain't a doubter, but I am a questioner" as he persuasively and desperately digs into his charismatic bag of tricks, preaching redemption and salvation.

A typical exchange finds White insisting, "Suffering and human destiny are the same thing," and Black countering with the challenge: "If you ain't got no pain in your life, how would you ever know when you was happy?" You say potato, I say dramatic arsenic. This actors' exercise is what it's like finding yourself trapped in a pretentious, self-important off-Broadway "experience," wishing you'd chosen to go to a movie or stay home with TV instead.

At least as The Sunset Limited poses its would-be profound questions, it has a point, obvious as it may be. I can't fathom what Masterpiece Classic is trying to say in its laborious three-part saga of a man's journey through the 20th century, Any Human Heart, except that life is long and maybe you had to be there.

Adapted by William Boyd from his own novel, this is the story of the sentimental and sensual education and mopey maturation of Logan Mountstuart, a failed one-hit writer and crashing bore who we see at various stages of his life, as we're told in voice-over platitudes: "We never stay the same person. We change as we grow old. The things that happen to us make us different people." Too bad none of the Logans we meet are particularly interesting or empathetic.

The miniseries is framed by Old Logan (Jim Broadbent), apparently on his last legs, going through his old journals and putting many of his memories on a bonfire as he alternately smiles and weeps over times good and bad. "It's all luck, isn't it, in the end?" is a recurring theme.

Bad luck to you if you dip into this fictional biography, which embraces every period cliché as Logan (portrayed through most of the film by Matthew Macfadyen) stumbles through the major events of the last century, occasionally rubbing shoulders with luminaries like Hemingway, Ian Fleming and, most colorfully, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (Tom Hollander and a nearly unrecognizable Gillian Anderson) — who are portrayed as petulant and vindictive spoiled brats. Which instantly makes them more entertaining company than this cold fish of a serial adulterer. Even the people who matter to him most are sketchily drawn, while others are almost laughable caricatures, including a friend's saucy cheating wife, purred by Kim Cattrall.

Oh well. They can't all be Downton Abbey and Temple Grandin. Let's hope for the best this spring, when HBO gives us Kate Winslet as Mildred Pierce and Masterpiece revives Upstairs Downstairs.

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