Its most overbearing aspect is a browbeating, melodramatic score by minimalist composer Philip Glass. When "The Hours" comes out on video, at least you'll be able hit the mute button and read the closed captions.
Indeed, it's a particularly verbal movie, adapted by top British playwright David Hare from gay author Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1998 novel.
The late film critic Richard Grenier argued that adaptations of celebrated literary works often fail because putting one up on the big screen can expose what the polish of the prose had hidden: the phoniness of the book's story and theme.
This movie offers the dubious and disturbing conceit that insanity and homosexual inclinations are deeply linked. Moreover, it portrays, perhaps inadvertently, English novelist Virginia Woolf's words as a cultural virus passing her mental misery and bisexuality from writer to reader, then from mother to son, and finally from boyfriend to girlfriend.
The movie begins in 1941 with Woolf (well played by Kidman, who borrows her body language from Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch of the West in "The Wizard of Oz") killing herself to avoid another attack of insanity
It then flashes back to 1923, when Woolf begins writing "Mrs. Dalloway," her novel about a latently bisexual society hostess organizing a party and a guest who kills himself. Woolf sullenly bickers with her female servants and French-kisses her appalled sister Vanessa Bell.
This story is intercut with two others. In 1951, a suburban housewife played by Julianne Moore begins reading "Mrs. Dalloway." When she puts the book down, you see in her face that she's so mentally ill that you hope some men in white coats drop a net on her before she chops up her terrified little boy. She impulsively kisses her voluptuous neighbor on the mouth, who doesn't notice. But her little boy does and, evidently, is scarred for life.
Does the suicidal housewife love Woolf's novel because she recognizes a kindred damaged mind? Or does Woolf pass her unhappiness and bisexuality on to her through her book?
In the third episode, a modern-day lesbian, a Greenwich Village book editor, is hosting a huge formal dinner party in honor of a gay poet who is delusional from AIDS. When sane, he teasingly calls her "Mrs. Dalloway."
Meryl Streep, a woman who radiates heterosexual normality (she and her husband of 24 years have four children), makes a lousy lesbian, just as Ed Harris, an actor of a more limited palette who is best playing icons of masculinity like astronaut John Glenn in "The Right Stuff," is implausible as a gay man.
But that seems to be the ideological point of the movie: that there's nothing in their inherent natures inclining them toward homosexuality. Social circumstances are all. In fact, the two were extravagantly in love in college, and Streep's character is still so smitten with him that she barely notices the woman she sleeps with.
So why did the manly young Ed Harris leave the lovely 18-year-old Meryl Streep for ... Jeff Daniels (the guy from "Dumb and Dumber")? It turns out that Harris was that little boy with the crazy mom who read "Mrs. Dalloway." That literary virus apparently led him to contract a biological virus, HIV, which made him suicidally insane, like Virginia Woolf.
And why did Streep respond to Harris's abandoning her by setting off on a life of loveless lesbianism? Judging from the movie's weird worldview, Harris must have infected her by calling her "Mrs. Dalloway."
In the ongoing nature-nurture debate over the causes of homosexuality, "The Hours" reflects the nurture side. Homosexual cultural theorists, such as Michel Foucault and countless lesbian English professors, argue that differences between straights and gays, or even between men and women, are not natural. Instead, they are "socially constructed."
For many lesbians, this view is not just ideological. Social constructionism seems more plausible to them than to gay men because societal pressures simply tend to weigh more heavily on women, lesbian or straight, than on men.
In contrast, some gay male scientists advance various biological theories. In support, they point out that most gay males recall feeling different from the other boys as far back as they can remember. They also admit that they hope that if a gay gene or a gay germ or whatever is eventually discovered, then people might stop pestering them about their orientation.
To the Foucaultian social constructionists, however, modern homosexuality can't be natural (because nothing human is natural). Instead, it is a symptom of our oppressive capitalist society. Thus, "The Hours" winds up like one of 1950s movies that warned you that mere social contact with homosexuals could turn you into one.
I'm not the most politically correct critic, but I'm offended by "The Hours."