** (out of four)
Imagine if Henry James were alive to hear that his 1897 novel had been adapted by writers whose previous work includes the “Dungeons and Dragons” movie and an episode of “Tales from the Crypt.” You can't make up this stuff.
Something else that's hard to believe: Julianne Moore playing an irresponsible rock star with a young daughter, Maisie (Onata Aprile), whom Susanna (Moore) treats primarily as collateral in her war with her soon-to-be ex-husband Beale (Steve Coogan). When the marriage officially dissolves, Beale earns custody, but he's just as shady—the sort of guy who leaves the country without saying so and doesn't communicate when he's coming back.
Somehow he won over Maisie's nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), enough for her to become his new bride and watch Maisie while her new husband comes and goes at random. Meanwhile, Susanna quickly and discreetly weds Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), a bartender with more character than you might expect from a sloppily dressed dude who hangs around with a washed-up rock star.
Any moments in which “What Maisie Knew” becomes affecting stem from the heart-wrenching evidence of a child caught between caretakers, as well as the notion that a good kid can come from mediocre parents. Aprile's performance is better than it might have been, but directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (“Bee Season”) don't capture Maisie's confusion and anguish in a situation that's, frankly, confusion- and anguish-inducing for a child.
Sure, she's used to her parents not coming through for her, but her excitement to see them doesn't match her response when they let her down. Similarly, Skarsgard and Vanderham sympathetically depict the game efforts of stepparents thrust into an uncomfortable situation, but their characters don't properly discuss a situation that demands it.
You'll just see Moore, desperately wanting to be with her child but legally unable to do so, and remember how much tighter that dilemma wound around the heart in “Boogie Nights.” Porn industry 1, Henry James 0.
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