Eleven months after winning the screenplay and audience awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, writer-director James C. Strouse’s Grace Is Gone has received a musical makeover care of Clint Eastwood, who reportedly screened the film and thought that it could do with a new original score, which he offered to compose himself. That music — a gently jazzy piano-and-strings theme — is just fine, and a good deal less cloying than what was there before. As for the movie itself, one can only regret that Eastwood didn’t offer to reshoot the whole thing while he was at it.

The Grace of Strouse’s title is a career Marine who’s gone off to fight the evildoers in Iraq, leaving her husband, Stanley (John Cusack), behind to care for their two young daughters, 12-year-old Heidi (Shelan O’Keefe) and 8-year-old Dawn (Grace Bednarczyk). The film’s early moments show us life as it continues on the home front, somewhere in the suburban flatlands of Minnesota. Stanley tests the waters of a support group for soldiers’ spouses (he’s the only man in the room), Heidi — the quiet, soul-searching one — steals forbidden peeks at the latest images from Baghdad on the evening news, and Dawn — the boisterous, doll-faced one — pauses for nightly moments of silence at the chime of her synchronized watch. Then, two men in uniform show up at the door, regretting to inform Stanley that Grace is now gone for good. At which point, Stanley does what I suppose Strouse thinks any like-minded parent would do: He piles everyone into the car and sets off on an impromptu trip to Disney World. Well, not Disney exactly, but a fictional Central Florida happy place called Enchanted Gardens, which, when we finally get there, looks neither particularly enchanting nor lush.

First, though, there’s a pit stop to visit Stanley’s parents, whereupon we also find Stanley’s layabout kid brother, John (Alessandro Nivola), who functions as the movie’s voice of blue-state America — so indicated by his scruffy beard, lack of gainful employment at age 32, and habit of referring to President Bush as a “monkey boy.” “How do these girls feel about the fact that their mother is halfway across the world fighting in an unjust oil war?” he asks Stanley. “They think their mother is a hero who’s helping to uphold the precious freedoms that allow you to have your traitorous, pinko opinions,” Stanley replies. I’m paraphrasing there, but you get the idea. The level of dialectical discourse rarely rises above that, but discourse isn’t really part of Strouse’s game plan. As with Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah, this season’s other drama about a family coping with the death of an Iraq enlistee, Grace Is Gone wants to massage liberal sensibilities about the war without alienating the church-going, Wal-Mart-shopping Middle Americans who might see, in Stanley Phillips, a reflection of themselves.

All the while, Stanley keeps up his morbid shell game in the least convincing of ways, leaving voice mails for Grace on the home answering machine and abruptly changing the subject whenever Heidi — ostensibly the brighter child — asks something on the order of, “Dad, how come we’re playing hooky from school in the middle of the year just so we can go to some dumb theme park?” Some champions of Grace Is Gone have suggested that none of this is meant to be taken literally and is instead Strouse’s canny metaphor for Americans’ unwillingness to acknowledge the full toll of Gulf War II. But rather than challenging our national aversion to unhappy endings, both in life and in cinema, Strouse plays right into it. He’s devised Grace Is Gone to work on our sentiments the way a porn movie works on our libidos — only Strouse postpones the money shot with 80-odd minutes of emotional foreplay en route to the inevitable, orgiastic climax where Stanley finally spills the beans and the girls spill forth the entire contents of their tear ducts. It’s a horribly contrived bit of catharsis, and, as if to underline the crassness of his instincts, Strouse drowns out the dialogue of that crucial scene with music — a reminder that, in all pornography, talk is expendable.

And yet, Grace Is Gone gets to people — mostly the same ones who go misty eyed reading Hallmark cards or listening to those insipid song dedications on the FM easy-listening station, but also some perfectly rational, intelligent festival-jury members and film critics. One friend and colleague went so far as to huff “Asshole!” in my direction after overhearing me express my displeasure following the film’s Sundance press ?screening. Admittedly, he himself is a father of two and I’m not, but such personal-experience defenses have always struck me as labored where movies are concerned. Certainly, you don’t have to have kids to feel moved by the circumstances faced by the parents in movies like Stella Dallas, Bicycle Thieves and last year’s superb, underrated The Pursuit of Happyness any more than you have to be an ascetic to emerge devastated from Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest.

There’s no denying, though, that Strouse (who makes his directorial debut here, having previously written the screenplay for Steve Buscemi’s Lonesome Jim)is a better manipulator than he is a filmmaker. Low budget or not, you will find few movies this year more poorly photographed and edited than this one, while the performances of the two child actresses rank among the camera-mugging extremes of television sitcoms and cereal commercials. Cusack, who also helped to produce the film, mugs for the camera in a different way, burying himself under layers of camouflage — bad comb-over hairdo, gut spilling over his waistline, rumpled Members Only jacket — in the time-honored fashion of actors who feel they haven’t been taken seriously enough and want to make sure we know they can really Act. (Think Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man or Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys.)His Stanley is supposed to be a former soldier himself, so eager to enlist that he cheated his way through an eye exam, yet there’s not one atom of this man’s potato-sack posture and dishwater demeanor to suggest that he would have passed muster as a Cub Scout. What old Grace saw in him, we’ll never know.

GRACE IS GONE | Written and directed by JAMES C. STROUSE | Produced by JOHN CUSACK, GRACE LOH, GALT NIEDERHOFFER, CELINE RATTRAY and DANIELA TAPLIN LUNDBERG | Released by The Weinstein Company | Century City 15, Sunset 5

LA Weekly