“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.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, drama, one of the year's worst

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