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Film review: Signs of Life

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Arthur Kennedy, perhaps best known as the photojournalist who followed Peter O'Toole around in "Lawrence of Arabia," returns to the screen after a 10-year absence in "Signs of Life," a little slice-of-life film set in a small Maine fishing town.

What little plot there is revolves around the closure of Owen Coughlin's (Kennedy) waterfront boat-building company, which has been around for more than a century but must now close thanks to the pressures of such cost-cutting measures as fiberglass, which are used by competitors, forcing Coughlin out of business.

Coughlin only knows one way to build boats and he's not about to change his ways now. But that means he's out of work, as is his small crew of boat builders — John Alder (Beau Bridges), whose wife is about to deliver their fifth child; Daryl Monahan (Vincent Phillip D'Onofrio), who has to care for his retarded younger brother Joey (Michael Lewis); and Daryl's best friend Eddie Johnson (Kevin J. O'Connor).

The film cuts from one story to another, and they are alternately laced with low-key humor, hints of tragedy and even whimsy. There's the goofy Italian family of fishermen who buy Coughlin's last boat and figure in a twist at the end of the film, the impending doom that seems to hang over Joey and a mysterious young man who hangs around Coughlin as a kind of angel of death.

All of these stories are handled with gentle care, making the film quite personal and fairly charming. But none of the stories or performances is particularly impressive so that in the end it simply seems overly familiar.

The weakest plot element is Beau Bridges' foray into crime, which seems more contrived than desperate, though it offers a nice wrap-up. The best is Kennedy's, especially as we discover who his angel-visitor is. And the best performances come from D'Onofrio and Lewis, though their story is not as compelling as it might have been.

On the whole it is a moderately recommendable effort, produced by American Playhouse, meaning it will probably wind up on PBS one day soon.

"Signs of Life" is rated R for profanity, a sex scene and some violence.