The Appeal of Her Zeal The Appeal of Her Zeal Marisa Tomei finds redemption in an exquisite film By richard schickel

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It's only a few weeks into the new year, and most of the big Oscar engines are still in the roundhouse, gathering steam for their dash to big-time buzz, grosses and Academy glory-or not. But while everyone hovers about them, you should glance over at that sidetrack where a little engine that may not even think it can is getting a head start to the finish line.

It has a nice steamy title-In the Bedroom -but no particular sexual heat. Todd Field, its first-time feature director, seems never to have looked at, let alone made, a music video. This is a patient movie, carefully studying what happens to an unexciting middle-class couple, Matt and Ruth Fowler (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek), when their good, gifted son Frank (Nick Stahl) is carelessly killed in a small Maine town.

But the movie has a couple of things going for it. One is the precedent of last year's much lauded You Can Count on Me, also about dark currents running through small-town life. The other is that In the Bedroom boasts a terrific comeback performance in a pivotal role by Marisa Tomei.

It may be unfair to single her out when Spacek and Wilkinson so gracefully manage most of the movie's heaviest lifting. But they have always been predictably expert actors. Tomei's career path is radically different. She came out of nowhere to win the supporting-actress Oscar, over more prestigious competitors, for her hilarious work in 1992's My Cousin Vinny. Then, and just as suddenly, she swooned into off-Broadway plays and smallish roles in obscure films, where she also gained a reputation as "difficult." Now she's back with a Golden Globe nod, and damned if people aren't talking Oscar nomination again.

Playing about a decade under her true age (37), Tomei is Natalie, a warmhearted, lower-class single mum who has made two mistakes: marrying an angry rich boy (William Mapother) and then, while separated, taking up with Frank. Theirs is a true love. But the affair crosses class lines. His mother worries openly about it; if the kid persists, he could end up a lobsterman instead of the architect he wants to be. Matt indulges his son; he thinks this is just a phase. Who's right, we'll never know. For Frank is killed. So is, more or less, Tomei's role-she appears only intermittently thereafter.

But that's all right with the Brooklyn-born actress. She fought for the part of Natalie, a woman who combines the sexy and the maternal in a way that sometimes, Field recalls, made "my jaw hit the ground." The director, himself an actor (he was Tom Cruise's piano-player pal in Eyes Wide Shut), says of Tomei: "She's not afraid to get lost. She's not afraid to stumble. She's looking for it to be messy."

That is brave for a woman who, aside from The Perez Family and What Women Want, was not landing choice roles. "I think you have to have a certain confidence that comes across on the screen," she says. "And I think I got away from that a little bit." She stuck it out, though, "because I love acting so much. I just really have this belief that that's what I'm supposed to be doing."

She has also never truckled to anyone. Even on In the Bedroom's happy set, she fought for her right to a Maine accent and for a budget-bending love scene she felt her character, and Stahl's, needed. That was O.K. with Field, who found her very low maintenance: "She cares, and not in a fanciful way. It's very practical." Says Tomei: "All you have going for it is the passion, the belief in it, the zeal to be there every day."

Zeal may be a quality some viewers will need in order to enjoy Bedroom. Once the lovers disappear, it settles into a film of silent accusations and deflected anguish. But that watchful waiting has a curiously instructive, ultimately hypnotic effect; this, one thinks, is really the way middle-class America hides its hurts. And those silences render more powerful the explosive confrontation between the grieving parents, in which a lifetime's evasions are blown away. They also make the movie's violent conclusion all the more startling, yet utterly right.

In the Bedroom is not a film for the romantically twitchy or the ideologically itchy. But this precisely calculated piece-beautifully acted by Tomei and the rest of the cast-is a very fine movie for those who value exquisitely rendered emotional truth. Is there, one wonders, an Oscar category for that? -Reported by