Archive for December 1994

The Madness of King George

December 28, 1994

The Madness of King George is an eloquent, many-sided study of the effects of absolute power — which, as we know, corrupts absolutely. It’s alternately one of the funniest, saddest movies in recent memory. In 1788, a decade or so after we Americans so ingraciously refused our British hosts, King George III (Nigel Hawthorne) still obsesses about the country he has been denied. He has a way of pronouncing “United States” as if it were the name of a disloyal son who’s gotten too big for his britches. The king, however, has more on his mind than the States. That is to say, he has everything on his mind and nothing on his mind; the king is going mad, and the assembled officials and hangers-on of the court find it harder and harder to chalk up his ravings as normal royal eccentricities.

Watching Madness unfold, I kept thinking, If only Caligula had been made this way! The movie, directed by Nicholas Hytner from a script by Alan Bennett (adapting his play), gives the monarchy its due while suggesting that the power of God, placed in man’s imperfect hands, can derange the soul. The king dashes around, spewing “blasphemies,” chasing ripe young women. Who is to stop him? No one may even look at him directly, much less challenge him. For a while, Hytner and Bennett play the king’s robust instability for laughs. He could almost be Mel Brooks in History of the World Part I, who kept saying “It’s good to be the king” as bouncing breasts made his eyes pop. But the spectacle of a monarch with no self-control is not only funny. Gradually, the notion becomes disturbing; with surprising force, the movie slips into tragedy. The king is incontinent and pathetic; he embarrasses everyone around him, and he embarrasses himself.

Few movies — few works in any medium — can shift gears this way without leaving us in the lurch. As we move between laughter and pangs of sadness, we can become resentful of the manipulation. Madness, though, is amazingly supple and generally unsentimental, and it acquires depth when it moves into the viewpoints of those who love King George and wish him well, and even those who simply want a well-appointed throne. The kingdom is about to revert to the next in power — the Prince of Wales (Rupert Everett), the king’s son, a useless, dispassionate wretch. The moviemakers feed us bits of court intrigue as the duplicitous officials fantasize about everything that will be accompished once mad old George is out of the way. We’re offended at the idea of the king being supplanted — an unusual sentiment for Americans to have. But the king, as played by Hawthorne, is worth saving. Polished by two years in the role on the stage, Hawthorne’s performance is a study in extremes, and he pulls us into his emotions. When George’s wife, Queen Charlotte (the touching Helen Mirren), speaks wistfully of the great, gentle man he used to be, we believe her even though George is bonkers almost from the start. Even at the peak of his delirium, an odd decency comes through.

The movie turns into a gripping melodrama, and also a comic contest of wills, when the king’s supporters call in a big gun. Dr. Willis (Ian Holm), who runs an isolated farm for the insane, deduces that the king needs brute therapy. He must be torn down, made into a mere man, and then built up again. Holm, who even today looks as if he could head-butt his way through a brick wall, uses his pugnacious features to make Willis an intimidating authoritarian even when he isn’t saying anything. Forgetting himself and lapsing into babble, the king is silenced by Willis’ annihilating frown. This psychiatrist is up against the formidable obstacle of the very concept of monarchy. Willis’ outrageous notion is that the king must be responsible for himself before he can be a responsible leader. Our hopes for his recovery operate on many levels, and his journey back to lucidity is gradual and convincing.

The Madness of King George strikes notes of absurdity and horror, slapstick and anguish. By the end of this complex and satisfying movie, we respect the man on the throne, because we’ve seen the pressures that drove him from it and the hard work that restored him. Should we not give some slack to the human men and women who occupy seats of power? Would any of us sit there comfortably?


December 23, 1994

“Chick-a-bay,” says Jodie Foster throughout Nell; loosely translated, it means “Oscar number three, here I come.” Nell is the sort of heartwarming terrible movie that invites comparisons to Rain Man, Awakenings, and all the other tearjerkers about innocent, afflicted people at odds with callous society. The film is stunningly awful on almost every level; in addition to Foster, whose judgment since The Silence of the Lambs seems to have gone to hell, there’s Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson and director Michael Apted and co-writer William Nicholson (Shadowlands) — not a hack in the bunch. So what happened?

Foster, as you may have assumed, is Nell, a young woman living in isolation in a North Carolina shack. Her mother has died; the local delivery boy (Jeremy Davies) finds the body, and the kindly Dr. Jerry Lovell (Neeson) comes to investigate and finds Nell. Jerry and psychologist Paula Olsen (Richardson) take a keen interest in Nell, observing her first from afar and then up close as she grows more comfortable with them. Speaking to them in her own strange tongue, Nell adopts them as her new parents. The scenes of Nell and her new guardians trying to communicate are involving; this stuff gets to you the way it always has. But then Nell, who has a tragic past to rival the character Foster played in The Accused, turns out to be far more than just a woman who doesn’t get out much. She’s meant to be a free spirit who heals troubled souls by her sheer primitive purity. When Nell started her healing shtick, I thought that she and Forrest Gump would make a great couple.

Mark Handley co-adapted his play Idioglossia (roughly, “one’s own foreign language”), and the material is still terribly stagy, except for repeated, gratuitous moonlit shots of Nell skinny-dipping. Executive producer Foster works maniacally — this is a real Streep turn — but even her great talent can’t scrape off the sentimental lint. Nell the backwoods angel has all her teeth, and they’re all perfectly white. And when she makes her climactic speech in a crowded courtroom — during a hearing to decide whether to institutionalize her — Nell reaches deep down and breaks out a string of pieties about how we all have big things to say but never look in each other’s eyes. Or grunts to that effect. For a woman who’s been isolated since birth, and has also recently been lapsing in and out of catatonia, she’s a pretty damn glib public speaker.

That’s only the most shameless moment in a movie full of them. Second place goes to the scene in which Nell wanders into a grubby bar; apparently confused as to how best to express her sexuality, she begins to strip while the barflies (including the delivery boy from the beginning) leeringly encourage her. Jeremy Davies was terrific in Spanking the Monkey, but if I’d seen him here for the first time, I’d never want to see him again; his crude, one-note performance adds to the tastelessness of the scene, which inadvertently functions as another chance to give us a peek at the executive producer’s breasts. And why would this woman, who since childhood has had the fear of rape drilled into her, suddenly throw caution to the wind? (And is Jodie Foster drawn to roles in which she’s degraded in bars?) Is it because of the stupid preceding sequence in which Dr. Jerry lets Nell see his penis, to reassure her that not all men are bad? Didn’t Liam Neeson learn his lesson in The Good Mother, where he let Diane Keaton’s daughter touch his schmecky and got Diane in big trouble? Liam, keep your goodies to yourself until further notice, okay?

Sitting there in a funk as Nell devolved further into sappiness, I wondered how Michael Apted, who has made several acclaimed documentaries, would have handled this material as a documentary, if he had found a real Nell somewhere in North Carolina. (Speaking of which, that state is far prettier than this movie indicates. Apted and his crew must have scouted for the blandest, grayest locations they could find.) A real-life Nell would have been dirty and unglamorous and truly mysterious. The point of Nell — solving the mystery of this woman — also robs her of any fascination. By the end, we’ve been spoon-fed every bit of data necessary to diagnose her. The movie should have a long life in Psych 101 courses.

Nell begins strongly enough to give you faith in the competence of the director and cast. Natasha Richardson flawlessly fakes a Southern accent (at times, she sounds like Foster’s Clarice Starling), Neeson continues his skill with American accents of indeterminate origin, and Foster — well, she does Nell about as well as Nell can be done. But too many other factors work against the actors, such as Mark Isham’s score — one of those hushed, rapturous numbers, which swells every time Nell flashes her ass or remembers frolicking with a little girl. (Are we not supposed to guess within seconds who the other girl is?) Then there’s the final scene, set “five years later,” in which Nell, happily picnicking with all her nice friends, dances with Jerry and Paula’s little daughter (yes, Nell brings the two docs together) and, God help us, teaches her to say “Chick-a-bay.”

Nell skipping from rock to rock in a nearby river may become as durable an image as Gump on the bus-stop bench. As a nation, we’re feeling degraded and strung-out and violent, and so we turn to guardian angels and Gumps and Nells to lull us into complacency. But complacency in these harrowed times spells doom. That’s why I kick so much at a candied daydream like Nell. The constant stream of positive life lessons can feel like a pillow being pressed over your face.

Death and the Maiden

December 23, 1994

It’s easy to forget that Sigourney Weaver started out as a comic actress in off-Broadway plays (mainly by Christopher Durang). Physically, she’s well-designed for comedy, particularly when she towers over her male co-stars. Yet her body has proven itself equally adept at drama. Weaver, of all American actresses, has perhaps the most elastic and expressive physique, whether crouching among the primates (and gradually becoming simian) in Gorillas in the Mist, or tight with anguish and purpose in the Alien series. In Death and the Maiden, a hard-driving and intimate thriller directed by Roman Polanski, we know Weaver is playing a woman struggling with memories of torture even before she opens her mouth, and maybe even before the camera moves in to consider her haunted features. It’s in the way she holds her body, as if to reassure herself that it’s now hers again. It’s in the panicked way she runs from candle to candle during a power outage, blowing them out when headlights approach. And as the story unfolds and Weaver surrenders herself to ferocious rage and disgust, her body, paradoxically, becomes more fluid, relaxed, as though her wounded flesh were animating itself to seek vengeance, beyond her conscious control.

Death and the Maiden, adapted by Ariel Dorfman and Rafael Yglesias (Fearless) from Dorfman’s play, uses a minimalist thriller set-up to explore the psyche of the torturer as well as the tortured. The story takes place in an anonymous Latin American country after the fall of a brutal dictatorship. Paulina (Weaver), we learn, got involved in radical activities as a college student. Pressed to name her boyfriend Gerardo (Stuart Wilson), a writer for a revolutionary paper, Paulina refused and was beaten, raped, and subjected to grisly electroshock torture. We don’t see any of this in flashback, but we will hear plenty about it in the scenes to come. Gerardo, now married to Paulina, has just been appointed head of a commission looking into tortures resulting in death. That’s not good enough for Paulina (whose torture resulted in a life of fear and anger); she wants absolute justice. Weaver makes us feel Paulina’s disappointment in her husband (who, working within this new bureaucracy, probably could never act fast enough, decisively enough, to satisfy her). And there’s a suggestion, later elaborated on, that Gerardo feels unworthy of her. He knows he couldn’t have endured what she endured to save him.

Fate, however, delivers satisfaction into Paulina’s lap — in the person of Dr. Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley), who gives Gerardo a ride home one rainy night. Miranda, who seems decent and middle-class and bland, congratulates Gerardo on his fine work rounding up those horrible torturers. Paulina, though, smells a rat — literally. She picks up his scent, hears his voice from the next room, and convinces herself that Miranda was the one who raped and tortured her (she had been blindfolded during each session). Viciously, she turns the tables, subjecting Miranda to her own brand of humiliation, intimidation, and interrogation. What’s so powerful and daring about Death and the Maiden is that it gradually begins to play like a deeply sick romance — and a romantic triangle. The well-meaning, ineffectual Gerardo can never know what Paulina went through. Only Miranda knows — only Miranda has attained that level of diseased intimacy with her. If, indeed, he is guilty. Polanski, the great living bad boy of international film, eroticizes this central conflict every chance he gets. The movie isn’t offensive, but it’s potent enough to scare off the faint of heart. In scene after scene, Polanski kicks the movie up to a level of emotional violence rare in English-speaking films.

Paulina keeps insisting that Miranda confess; Miranda puts up a wall of heated, appalled denials. She’s very convincing. So is he. On one level, Death and the Maiden is a gripping suspense machine: Is he guilty or not? If so, what will she do to him? Does she have a right to take revenge even if he is guilty? Is she right or is she crazy? Is she both? Polanski is right at home in this claustrophobic setting, as he was in his bookend paranoid classics Repulsion and The Tenant; he digs in with both hands. I was one of very few viewers not disgusted or offended by his previous film, Bitter Moon, which I consider perhaps the finest anti-romantic comedy ever made. Polanski can lull you inside a mindset you’ve been conditioned to denounce. You find yourself not condoning it, exactly, but understanding it, coming close enough to shudder, acknowledging that evil is not Other but simply an aspect of humanity. In Death and the Maiden, Polanski and Dorfman have the titanic balls to address what torture does to its perpetrators as well as its victims — not in a touchy-feely, “I was abused as a child and that justifies the evil I do” way, but in a clear-eyed manner that carves away our doubts. A climactic monologue, delivered on a cliff against a gray sky and crashing waves, is chillingly direct in its assessment of what leads a certain type of person in a certain situation to enjoy inflicting pain. It’s like an extension of John Huston’s line in Polanski’s Chinatown: “Most people never have to face that at the right time and place, they’re capable of anything.”

The movie is a peerless example of alchemy. Roman Polanski has taken a vaguely political tract and transformed it into something darker, more open, Polanski-esque. I left feeling chilled and disturbed and highly exhilarated, my senses heightened. Death and the Maiden never lets you off the hook — it leaves you twisting on it helplessly. And it has the most evocative final shot — the three characters exchanging cold glances at a concert — I’ve seen at the movies in years.

Dumb and Dumber

December 16, 1994

dumb-and-dumber-orange-and-blue-tuxedos1That sound you hear across America is the collective brows of movie critics crinkling in dismay over the whirlwind success of Jim Carrey, the golden idiot of the moment. It was safe for critics to praise his previous hit, The Mask, because of its special-effects homage to Tex Avery; otherwise, Carrey is still considered a baffling anomaly. I hated Carrey in Ace Ventura — he was just too relentlessly “on” — but there’s no doubt that he can be ecstatically funny. In Dumb and Dumber, his new showcase, Carrey appears in a ridiculous orange tux and does a brisk, happy jig that recalls Steve Martin before he calcified into father-of-the-bridehood; it’s a vintage bit of physical buffoonery. Carrey surprised a laugh out of me at least once every reel. He doesn’t yet have the absurdist vibe that sent Martin into Looney-Tunes heaven in The Man with Two Brains, but give him time (and the right script). As his partner in dumbness, Jeff Daniels makes a game attempt at slob humor; he really tries. But his performance is like a New Year’s resolution to loosen up — there’s no real madness in anything he does. Daniels does have one tenderly loco moment, when he’s so enthralled by an attractive woman he’s talking to that he doesn’t notice his leg has caught fire. Otherwise, it’s completely Carrey’s show.

Dumb and Dumber isn’t nonstop hilarity; there are quite a few dead spots. But I liked it a lot. In its amiable narrative shabbiness, it reminded me of two other comedies I remember fondly even though they only made me really laugh two or three times each: The Jerk, with its blend of slapstick and surreal you-can’t-tell-why-you’re-laughing moments (“The phone books are here!”), and the 1982 Cheech and Chong vehicle Things Are Tough All Over, whose plot — a large amount of cash drops into the laps of two dimwits — is similar to Dumb and Dumber‘s. The director, Peter Farrelly, who also wrote the script with his brother Bobby and Bennett Yellin (and who wrote the autobiographical novel Outside Providence), sometimes opts for cruel humor: The boys make fast bread by selling their headless parakeet to a blind boy; a bad guy on their trail (the ubiquitous Mike Starr of Mad Dog and Glory, Trial by Jury, Cabin Boy, and Ed Wood) overdoses on chili peppers and mistakenly pops rat poison instead of his ulcer pills. I didn’t get the men’s-room gag with the truck-stop bully — it’s either homophobic or pointless — and Teri Garr doesn’t add much to her two scenes. Still, there’s always something strange or laughable every few minutes, including the very idea of Karen Duffy as a hit woman.

Pundits have speculated about the enormous success of Carrey and Dumb and Dumber (not to mention Forrest Gump), issuing somber pronouncements about the dumbing-down of America. Newt Gingrich and his pit bulls have their sights trained on PBS, and high-school grads are dumber every year. It’s probably the ideal time to go watch Jim Carrey be a moron: At least we’re not that bad yet.


December 9, 1994

The novel Disclosure was pure Michael Crichton: a fast, alarmist, topical read without so much as a pebble of complexity to trouble the waters. Crichton no longer writes books; he writes Soon-to-Be-Major-Motion-Pictures. Yet Disclosure raised many hackles upon publication, as has the movie version, which is far superior simply by virtue of not shoving tons of technobabble down our throats. (Crichton lingers over descriptions of CD-ROM drives the way Judith Krantz lingers over orgasms.) Crichton is famous for tailoring his novels to Hollywood players: Jurassic Park practically had “Property of Steven Spielberg” stamped across its dust jacket, Rising Sun was written for Sean Connery, and Disclosure was so bald in its intentions that book critics wondered who would star opposite Michael Douglas in the movie. The odds-on favorites were Glenn Close or Sharon Stone, but Demi Moore won out.

Was Crichton, in fashioning a reverse-sexual-harassment plot, really doing what he said he was doing? The novel had a trashy-contemplative aura designed to make you think you were being made to think. Tackling this hot-button issue laterally, Crichton came up empty: The plot motor is still a beleaguered white guy’s anger at losing what little power he’s managed to attain. The junky, resentful novelty of the book is also present in the movie, but the director, Barry Levinson, has the wit to steer around it. His Disclosure is explicitly about power in all its corrosive aspects. The issue now is not whether it’s plausible for a woman to subject a man to sexual harassment (and the dynamics are too different to be comparable). The movie’s subject is the intricate web of paranoia and competitive aggression that creeps down and smothers any flicker of loyalty.

Levinson and scripter Paul Attanasio make clear that Disclosure will concern not sexual harassment, but false claims of it. The protagonist, Tom Sanders (Douglas, of course), a happily married father of two and an engineering exec at a computer firm, watches as his former lover, Meredith Johnson (Moore), snags the VP slot he covets. What happens next can be interpreted any number of ways. Meredith invites Tom up to her office and aggressively jumps him. He repeatedly says no, but to what extent does no mean yes in this situation? She gets him so worked up that he throws himself upon her, then snaps out of it and withdraws. Frustrated and enraged, she shrieks at him and storms out; the next day, she slaps him with a harassment claim. Given the lousy option of demotion and relocation, Tom threatens to countercharge Meredith.

There’s much debate over whether Meredith abused her power — she, being his boss, put him in that awkward situation — and whether Tom should have had the immediate wherewithal to defuse the festivities before they went too far. That was Crichton’s thesis; he turned personal accountability into a bland abstract issue. The movie breathes less heavily about ethics, preferring instead to explore this office misadventure (ludicrous on the face of it) as a metaphor for the rapist mentality of corporate America. Big-business power plays have always seemed like expressions of impacted sexuality — think of terms like “acquisition,” “hostile takeover,” “merger” — but few films besides Disclosure have approached the Freudian corporate subtext as a vehicle for satire. Tom almost gets taken over by the hostile Meredith, who would like to acquire him and definitely merge with him; and because he’s Michael Douglas and not a woman, we feel freer to laugh. In his shrewd-earnest way, Michael Crichton was (maybe unconsciously) on to something. Disclosure told its male readers what too many women already knew: how it feels to be screwed, in all senses of the word, by someone vicious and more powerful.

Levinson and Attanasio nourish this neat seed of an idea, but in one respect they don’t transcend Crichton. The firm’s CEO, Bob Garvin, was much more sympathetic in the book; he handpicked Meredith (and later came to her defense) because he wanted to see more women in power. His PC-ness blinded him to the truth. In the movie, Garvin, played by Donald Sutherland in full, gleaming cold-bastard bloom, is nakedly ruthless. A loud clinker here is that this Machiavellian CEO now has no reason to keep Meredith on, if his public speeches about smashing the glass ceiling are just hot air; it seems more corporately in character for him to make Meredith disappear and avoid the inevitable furor, which occurs on the brink of a crucial merger. And why would this man, who knows and sees everything, be unaware of Tom’s past with Meredith? Or is he covertly trying to stage a shake-up? Garvin’s motives could be a whole lot clearer.

Wisely, Disclosure takes us into Tom’s growing paranoia, his suffocating helplessness as his life slips from his hands. Michael Douglas, by now, has found his niche. In movie after movie, he sounds the frightened bleat of the dying white male. His rising blood pressure has become one of the most familiar sights in modern movies; he taps right into the wounded zeitgeist of middle-class white liberals who are sick of being called oppressors. His recent string of performances is an eloquent rebuttal to the reflexive man-bashing of the ’90s. He’s saying, Hey, we guys have it rough, too; everybody has it rough — these are rough times. In a sense, what he’s doing by casting himself as a victim of women is a repudiation of the popular victim culture that has paralyzed feminism and led to the insane Antioch rules, that has taught women that male domination is not only frequent but a given, and thus impossible to fight except through a kind of atavistic prudity. The message of these Douglas movies might be: Don’t whine — fight. Whoever’s holding you down, threatening you — fight him. Or her.

Like a true Hollywood entertainment, Disclosure doesn’t disturb its waters with complexity much more than Crichton did — at least, not enough to spoil the fun. And the movie is solid fun, make no mistake. It has all the ingredients of an absorbing courtroom thriller, except nobody ever makes it into court. The central sex scene is wonderfully staged, casting a queasy spell of eroticism and fear; it has the vertiginous, disorienting feel of the real thing. (Levinson, not known for carnality in his work, makes a quantum leap here.) There’s subtle support from Caroline Goodall as Tom’s lawyer wife, who’s much savvier about corporate piranhas than he is; Roma Maffia as the harassment attorney who takes Tom’s case; and Dennis Miller, who surprisingly refuses to smirk his way through his role as a techie.

As for Demi Moore, she’s a bit of a dud. Her Meredith is so transparently evil that nothing much seems at stake. (God, what Christine Lahti might have done with her — or Geena Davis, who’s overdue to play a villain.) As he has done with good movies and bad, though, Michael Douglas takes Disclosure on his back and runs with it. He succeeds where Michael Crichton failed; he makes you care about Tom’s clearing his name and savoring his triumph — which turns out, in the movie’s best unstated joke, to be staying in a cutthroat corporation, building CD-ROM drives for the rest of his life.