The line of disappointing 2007 films continued for Meryl with the release of Rendition, and, like Evening, it had the makings of a stellar achievement. It paired Meryl with a superb group of actors, many of whom had recently won or been nominated for Academy Awards. Reese Witherspoon was coming off her Oscar for Walk the Line, Alan Arkin had just won for Little Miss Sunshine, and Jake Gyllenhaal had been nominated for Brokeback Mountain. The director Gavin Hood had directed the acclaimed South African movie Tsotsi, the winner of the 2005 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Rendition told an important topical story that featured multiple narratives and scenes of shocking violence and potentially heart-wrenching emotion. When it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, early word was solid, and the great Roger Ebert even considered it a perfect film.
But everything changed when the movie opened in late October. Audiences stayed away, and most who showed up walked away disappointed. Topping out at less than 10 million nationwide, Rendition was a flop at the box office that was essentially pulled from theaters by the time Meryl’s next flop, Lions for Lambs, opened in November. It has some good performances and a couple of scenes that work, but for the most part, this film is cold, uninvolving, and extremely slow. Meryl is barely in it, and worst of all, she plays a role that literally any woman in Hollywood age forty to seventy could have played with ease. Susan Sarandon, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates—all of these actresses could have played the part, and nobody would have blinked. Meryl does a serviceable job in this one, but nothing more, and certainly nothing extraordinary.
Rendition is a two-hour drama with too much talk and too little drama. At the beginning of the movie, a terrorist bombing kills an American in Africa, and an investigation leads to an Egyptian man Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) who has lived in the United States for many years and who is married to an American woman, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon). He is apprehended when his plane lands and the U.S. sends him back to the country where the terrible incident occurred. A CIA operative Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) watches the torture of this man and debates whether to keep it going or not. The pregnant Isabella continues to ask about the whereabouts of her husband but nobody, despite her increasing frustration, gives her any information. Meryl plays Douglas’ boss Corrine Whitman, who asks that the detention of Anwar continue, thinking that to set him free could put thousands of people in harm’s way.
What drew Meryl to this project, and this banal character? She has said in interviews that the script got her heart racing and that she wasn’t typically offered thrillers (although whether Rendition can be considered a thriller is up for debate). Her daughter Mamie played her younger self in Evening, so it made logical sense for Meryl to appear in that film. Lions for Lambs offered her the chance to act in scenes with Tom Cruise, as well as reunite with her Out of Africa co-star Robert Redford, albeit this time with her as the actress and him as the director. But besides the high wattage of star power and a director coming off a beloved foreign movie, Rendition must have simply read better on paper. Meryl has said that she likes playing the boss—The Devil Wears Prada, The Iron Lady, and The Giver are just a few of her recent films showing her in charge—so maybe the prospect of playing another powerful figure appealed to her. However the part must have looked in the screenplay, it doesn’t give her much to play with, and the role has to be considered one of her weakest in her entire career.
The problem with Rendition is that despite all the talent involved, and all the ambition that went into the piece, little of it stays with the viewer once the end credits start rolling. It’s one of those movies that has way too many narratives, to the point where none of them get another screen-time to make any real impact. Witherspoon’s storyline had the best chance for emotional resonance, but she’s seen so infrequently that it’s hard not to giggle when she screams at Meryl that immortal line, “Just tell me he’s okay!” Gyllenhaal is one of our finest actors, but he basically just stands around and looks stoic; how many scenes are we supposed to watch of him just standing in a dark corner? Peter Sarsgaard plays a character he always seems to play, the great JK Simmons appears in a small intimidating part that goes nowhere, and Arkin throws out a few snarky lines before he basically disappears for the rest of the movie.
Meryl has no more than ten scenes, most of which consist of her talking angrily into a phone or standing at an upscale party looking like Lady Macbeth, in a regal gown Miranda Priestly likely would have vomited on. Her first scene, waking up in bed at two in the morning, doesn’t even allow her a memorable entrance; the camera just pans around the bed as she talks on the phone in the dark. You would think that she would have one explosive scene, or some kind of eye-popping moment that captures your attention. But aside from a short monologue she says to Sarsgaard, she doesn’t even say much in her scenes. She stands around looking not like our finest living actress but like a movie star waiting to cash a check before she moves on to her next project. Rendition is an unsuccessful movie that commits the worst of crimes; it wastes Meryl’s talent by giving her a totally unworthy character. Meryl is known for being offered the cream of the crop when it comes to film parts, but in a trio of movies in 2007, for some strange reason, she only seemed to be offered scraps.