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updated: 5/2/2014 12:40 PM

Cancer struggle overshadows research angle in 'Decoding Annie Parker'

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  • Researcher Mary-Claire King (Helen Hunt) spends years seeking out the inherited mutation that indicates an elevated risk for breast and ovarian cancer in "Decoding Annie Parker."

      Researcher Mary-Claire King (Helen Hunt) spends years seeking out the inherited mutation that indicates an elevated risk for breast and ovarian cancer in "Decoding Annie Parker."

  • Samantha Morton, left, and Rashida Jones star in "Decoding Annie Parker," about a woman whose family is devasted by breast cancer and the search for the gene behind it.

      Samantha Morton, left, and Rashida Jones star in "Decoding Annie Parker," about a woman whose family is devasted by breast cancer and the search for the gene behind it.

  • Video: "Decoding Annie Parker"

 
By Jen Chaney, Special to The Washington Post

Mary-Claire King is an American woman who did something extraordinary. After years of painstaking research, she discovered the BRCA1 gene, the inherited mutation that indicates an elevated risk for breast and ovarian cancer, proving that such cancers are passed down from generation to generation.

"Decoding Annie Parker" focuses on King's efforts, in part, but doesn't explore them nearly as fully as they deserve. Early on, this based-on-real-events drama sets its course on two narrative paths: one that follows King (Helen Hunt) and her team during their nearly two-decade quest to find that cancer-related genetic link, and another that follows Annie Parker (Samantha Morton), a Toronto wife and mother whose family is repeatedly shattered by the disease. As the movie progresses, the balance tips increasingly toward Annie's story, turning what could have been a double-sided portrait of two women's perseverance in pursuit of an unknowingly shared goal into a sometimes moving but mostly familiar look at a single struggle with the c-word.

As directed by Steven Bernstein, "Decoding Annie Parker" frequently dangles on the precipice of falling into Lifetime Original Movie territory. What saves it, over and over again, is its excellent cast, anchored by Morton as Annie, a woman who marries, gets pregnant and eventually discovers that her aspiring rock god husband (Aaron Paul, in a series of distracting wigs) can't cope when chemotherapy creeps into their lives. There's both a gentleness and a charcoal-hard stubbornness in Morton's portrayal that makes Annie naturally empathetic yet above pity; she's clearly a fighter, and Morton inhabits her with understated dignity and an admirable willingness to put the ugliest aspects of illness on display.

Unfortunately, as strong as Morton and her castmates -- including Hunt, Corey Stoll, Rashida Jones, Alice Eve and "West Wing" veterans Richard Schiff and Bradley Whitford -- may be, there's a gnawing sense throughout "Decoding Annie Parker" that the deeper, more interesting narrative isn't being told.

Annie's cancer story, and all the romantic relationship drama that comes with it, sucks up all the emotional juice, but surely King's groundbreaking research, which took 17 years to come to fruition, involved struggle, too.

Yet apart from an early scene in which a dismissive good old boy type refuses to fund King's research, the movie shows little of that.

Instead, every time the camera dips back into the white-lab-coated world the geneticist inhabits -- where, for reasons that may have been budget-related, neither she nor anyone else seems to age during that 17-year span -- it results in a session of "Let's Dumb Down Science for Moviegoers."

Poor Hunt and Maggie Grace are stuck delivering mouthfuls of exposition instead of having the opportunity to reveal, as Morton does, the spectrum of emotion involved in waging a cancer battle of another kind.

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