Archive for December 1999

The Hurricane

December 29, 1999

Back in the mid-’70s, Bob Dylan hauled out his instant-classic protest anthem “Hurricane,” chronicling Rubin Carter, “the man the authorities came to blame.” Dylan’s song didn’t seem to make much difference, because Carter — the former prizefighter given a triple life sentence for murders he didn’t commit — didn’t win his freedom until a good decade later, in 1985. More than a decade after that, we have the biopic The Hurricane, which wouldn’t have done Carter’s case much good either, if it had been released when he was still doing time in New Jersey. This is yet another guilty-white-liberal epic (it even provides three guilty white liberals onscreen for guilty white liberals to identify with) that takes the daring stance that racism is bad. Watching a well-intentioned but inert movie like The Hurricane, you understand why Spike Lee once said that black filmmakers are best equipped to tell black stories. For one thing, they aren’t compelled by white liberal guilt to pussyfoot around their subjects. Spike Lee, in Malcolm X, hardly shied away from Malcolm’s less noble days.

The Rubin Carter we see in The Hurricane, directed by Norman Jewison from a script by Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon, is more or less idealized. Here and there we see flashes of the aggression and barely tamed violence that made Carter a ferocious boxer who made a habit of slashing down his rivals in the first round. But of course this is all due to growing up black in a racist society (what of the black people who grew up the same way but didn’t have a violent streak?). Carter even has a white nemesis, a foul detective (Dan Hedaya, glowering as if he were still playing Nixon) who fixates on the 11-year-old Carter and keeps turning up to drag him off to jail for trumped-up reasons. This detective seems to have nothing else to do except haunt Rubin Carter; it’s as if all the racism in the world were concentrated into this one man. For a long time, the only white people Carter meets are racists, betrayers (a white journalist prints an ill-advised off-the-record comment Carter makes about wanting to shoot himself some redneck cops), or perverts (Carter’s first arrest, the movie tells us, is for stabbing a white pedophile who preys on black boys).

In prison, oddly enough, Carter meets his first actual nice white person, a sympathetic guard (Clancy Brown, in a mirror image of the hateful guard he played in The Shawshank Redemption) who scarcely seems to age over the course of 20 years or so. The guard feels about as real as anyone else in the heavily fictionalized movie, which is to say, not very. Carter wrestles with his inner demons for a while, then settles down to write his memoir The 16th Round, which is apparently published with a big splash — we see an entire bookstore-window display full of copies. (Would a publishing house actually do that for an author whose innocence was still in doubt, and who clearly wasn’t going to be available for a book tour? Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Rubin Carter of the ’90s, didn’t get anything like that sort of treatment with his books.) After a while the splash calms down to a ripple — though the movie doesn’t tell us this, a lot of the celebrities who championed Carter in the ’70s (including Bob Dylan) eventually lost interest — and, seven years later, a rumpled copy of the hardcover turns up at a library book sale in Canada.

As luck would have it, the book finds its way into the hands of a black teenager (Vicellous Reon Shannon), who has been saved from illiteracy and the ghetto by three white Canadians (Deborah Kara Unger, Liev Schreiber, and John Hannah) who home-school him in preparation for college. The Canadians are pretty insufferable, bordering on condescending (Unger, chain-smoking her way through the movie, provides the only spark of frazzled humanity; the other two are like conscientious guidance counselors). The black kid devours the book, then gets his Canadian friends interested in Carter’s case. For simplifying purposes, the movie tells us that this quartet were the only people with the determination and know-how to find crucial bits of exculpating evidence and get Carter’s case heard — even though two juries had found him guilty. For his part, Carter goes back and forth, accepting their help, then rejecting it because he needs to accept the reality of lifelong imprisonment, then coming around again.

Denzel Washington would seem well-equipped for the role of Rubin Carter; maybe too well-equipped — we’ve been down this road with him a few times before. After Steven Biko, Malcolm X, Trip the soldier in Glory, and now Rubin Carter, how many more icons of black endurance in the face of white bigotry can he play? Washington is still too young and vital an actor to let himself be enshrined in nobility. I’m not asking for more meaningless crap like Ricochet or Virtuosity, but can’t someone put him in a romantic comedy? Millions of women must be dying to see him do something other than suffer and persevere. Washington is strong as usual, right down to his physique, which seems whittled down to its essentials. But most of his big moments here seem calibrated to win an Oscar. An easy-going, light-hearted, reasonably intelligent entertainment like The Mighty Quinn, from 1989, or even another Easy Rawlins noir like Devil with a Blue Dress, might save this actor from calcifying into an uplift-the-race statuette.

The movie itself is startlingly inept coming from a generally accomplished director like Norman Jewison. We’re frequently confused as to where and when we are in the film’s tangled flashback scheme, and for no apparent reason other than, perhaps, to evoke Raging Bull, all of Carter’s boxing matches are shot in black and white. It sparks an unhelpful comparison (the boxing scenes are nothing special) and leads us to believe at first that the flashbacks will be in black and white, when in fact all the flashbacks outside the ring are in color, like the present-day scenes.

One other element of the film stuck in my craw: Rubin Carter wasn’t the only man the authorities came to blame — another man, John Artis, was in the car with him and got the same triple-life sentence. But because he wasn’t a famous boxer, didn’t write a book, didn’t have Bob Dylan writing a song about him, and wasn’t destined to be played by Denzel Washington in a holiday-season biopic, apparently nobody cared about springing his obscure black ass. The movie doesn’t seem to care, either; after Artis is sentenced, we neither see him nor hear another syllable about him until an end-title card informs us that he, too, was freed from jail — the point being that if Rubin Carter was innocent, then, oh yeah, the guy riding with him was innocent, too. It’s the afterthought quality of the film’s treatment of John Artis (whose life was no less senselessly ripped apart) that pushed my apathy toward The Hurricane into downright irritation. It makes you think about the possible thousands of unjustly imprisoned black men (or, hell, any color men) who aren’t warmed by the good intentions of celebrities, Canadians, or movie directors.


December 26, 1999

You’d probably have to go back to Kurosawa (Throne of Blood) or Welles (Chimes at Midnight) to find a more ingeniously and passionately mounted Shakespeare film production. That’s heady company for a first-time movie director to keep, but Julie Taymor had already demonstrated her visual virtuosity, most popularly in her stage version of The Lion King but also in her 1994 production of Titus Andronicus. Taymor looks for the imagistic possibilities of every moment, and Titus is two hours and forty-four minutes of very fattening eye candy. It begins (as it did onstage) with a present-day little boy wrecking his action figures in a bit of war play; he, and we, are then ushered into the world of Titus (Anthony Hopkins) and his ill-starred dynasty. Taymor is no visual wizard to the exclusion of performances: she gets rowdy work out of Hopkins as well as Jessica Lange (looking fabulous in a variety of Milena Canonero outfits) as Tamora, Harry J. Lennix as Aaron, Alan Cumming chewing every bit of available scenery as Saturninus, Laura Fraser as the pitiable Lavinia, and Angus Macfadyen (more Wellesian here than he was as Welles in Cradle Will Rock) as Lucius. Fox Searchlight released this, probably spent a great deal of money on it, and very likely took a huge bath on it, but it’s this sort of project that studios should be throwing gobs of cash at more often. Taymor’s next film was Frida. She later returned to Shakespeare with The Tempest.


December 25, 1999

If I were to begin this as a normal movie review, and then it went on and on for thousands of words, full of sometimes dazzling paragraphs that didn’t relate to each other, and if this review then somehow turned into a haiku written in German about squirrels, how would you respond to it? If you were feeling generous, you might allow that it’s fitfully interesting — after all, nobody’s ever attempted this before — but you also might point out there’s a good reason nobody’s done it before.

Something like that happens in (and to) Magnolia, another demonstrative epic by the madly ambitious Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights). For long stretches, even the long bad stretches, I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt: Nobody could call Magnolia timid or ordinary. But the cumulative effect of three hours and ten minutes of disjointed emotions, random despair, and freak occurrences that get right in your face and dare you not to take them seriously … well, it’s exhausting, even punitive. Anderson wants to grab us and hold us, but that isn’t the same as involving us; he seems to prolong the scenes and shuffle the storylines simply because he can. Anderson loves the bullying control of being a movie director.

In Los Angeles, a variety of people move through their meaningless days, nursing old wounds, sinking into fits of self-loathing. In outline, Magnolia is a lot like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, in which flawed, hapless people were caught in the pitiless hands of fate — and of Altman. Anderson is more gentle; he gives his actors moments they can sink their teeth into. But they’re just moments — they play like exercises designed for an acting class, and they hardly make sense; they’re not organic to the movie, but then nothing else in the movie is, either.

The movie has many mystifying touches: many references to a Biblical passage prophesying the movie’s climax; free-floating Masonic imagery; a little black kid who delivers an obscure rap that supposedly solves the mystery of a dead man in a closet. There’s also a prologue telling us that strange things happen, and the climax has a comparable Ripley’s Believe It or Not tone; but what that has to do with the movie’s repeatedly stated theme (come to terms with the past; be kind to one another) is anyone’s guess.

Those who respond to Magnolia will have enough to discuss and dissect for months (and I wouldn’t dream of dismissing those who embrace the film; it’s a love-it-or-hate-it affair). A good deal of Anderson’s banquet is enjoyable, but there are too many dishes, too much for one sitting, and some of us may not feel like returning for seconds. For all of Magnolia‘s energy and virtuosity (whatever else you can say about him, Anderson is a dynamic director, even if his particular dynamism is borrowed from Scorsese as well as Altman), for all of its success at evoking a sense of simultaneity and the uncanny, we just don’t spend enough time with any given character to become involved in his or her story.

Anderson busily sets up many “literary” parallels. There are two dying old fathers, both of whom work or worked in television (Anderson’s own father, Ernie Anderson, was the Cleveland kid’s-TV horror-movie host Ghoulardi). One, Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), is estranged from his son (Tom Cruise), a dynamic how-to-pick-up-women lecturer probably patterned on Ross Jeffries. The other, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), hosts a quiz show pitting kids against adults, and is hated by his daughter (Melora Walters in the film’s most touching performance), a cokehead who develops an uneasy bond with a good-hearted cop (John C. Reilly).

There is also a former quiz-show whiz kid, Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), now a bitter nowhere man who apparently lost his smarts when hit by lightning (Anderson does love these sick jokes of God’s); a current whiz kid on Jimmy Gator’s show is browbeaten by his own father into winning, just like Donnie was. Why all this elaborate parent-child venom? As in Boogie Nights, Anderson lays on the vituperative scenes of conflict, the bathetic moments of reconciliation. By many recent press accounts, Anderson loved his dad (who, like the movie’s two dads, had cancer) but is estranged from his (still-living) mother; if he has issues with her, I wish he’d work them out somewhere other than in his films.

Writing about Eugene O’Neill’s mammoth play The Iceman Cometh, Pauline Kael noted that “banality in depth can let loose our common demons,” and Anderson may have been trying for that. But what he ends up with is banality at length — punishing length. Magnolia is like a season’s worth of soap-opera vignettes, acted vigorously by a sincere cast. Some of the actors don’t come off. The usually dependable Julianne Moore, as Earl’s viciously miserable young wife, knocks herself silly trying to do something real with her sketchy character; her meltdown scene in a pharmacy is among the worst-written monologues I’ve ever heard in a serious film.

The most painful part of Magnolia is that Paul Thomas Anderson isn’t a no-talent; you can’t dismiss him. He has a genuine gift for melancholy, and some of the pieces of Magnolia are first-rate. But this film and Boogie Nights keep veering between wildly contrasting moods: dynamic energy and sodden depression; exaltation and despair. And the stories he’s telling just don’t justify the workout he puts us through.

If Magnolia were shorter, it might make a fascinating folly; if it were longer — say, an eight-episode series for HBO — Anderson might at least have time to dig deeper into the characters, who remain representative ciphers expressing themselves in too-explicit speeches. At times the movie seems to tremble under the strain of trying not to crack apart, and at the end, the film completely loses it — it’s as if Anderson, desperate for a spectacular finish and an easy way out of his dozen plot threads, had opted for the most arrogantly nonsensical climax possible. Cue the frogs! Is Anderson insane? Or did his ambition just get the better of him? Magnolia is a mess, but it’s somehow encouraging: It takes a gifted director to make a movie this extravagantly foolish.

2009 addendum: Ten years later, this film continues to bother and haunt me, despite its flaws, or perhaps because of them. Certainly few American films in the intervening decade have approached this movie’s ambition and generosity of spirit. For that reason I am upgrading my rating on eFilmCritic to four out of five stars, because any film this uncanny and wounded and dazzlingly composed is by definition “worth a look.”

Angela’s Ashes

December 25, 1999

Angela’s Ashes has a beautiful ugly look. Rain soaks the dirty streets of Ireland, turning every public area (and even some interiors) into mud puddles. The film itself seems to have been bled dry by a vampire, and the pale, skinny people plod through the muck and drizzle like wraiths. When young Frank McCourt comes down with a nasty case of conjunctivitis, it’s the first sign of color in his face. All of this squalor is perfectly composed and lighted, as if the director Alan Parker were trying to find a visual equivalent to McCourt’s elegant prose.

The movie is bleak, depressing, and almost entirely grim — every time a character enjoys a small triumph, a big letdown is right on its heels. (This is the sort of film in which a man finally finds a job after months of searching, then celebrates at a pub and gets so drunk he oversleeps the next day and gets fired.) Angela’s Ashes doesn’t have a chance of scoring with a mass audience (despite the popularity of McCourt’s bestseller), but I thoroughly enjoyed it — enjoyed the relentless gloomy realism, the refusal to put a happy face on McCourt’s miserable childhood. The events of the story are saddening; the movie’s integrity in handling them without flinching or melodrama is satisfying, even refreshing.

Angela’s Ashes begins not in Limerick (where most of the film is set) but in Brooklyn, New York — a confusing and intriguing starting point for viewers who haven’t read the book: Isn’t this supposed to be an Irish story? The McCourt parents — Malachy (Robert Carlyle), a hapless drunk, and his long-suffering wife Angela (Emily Watson) — watch as their newborn baby girl dies. They already have four other children, including Frank, and they decide to move back to Ireland, because Malachy isn’t having any luck in America. He has no better luck in Limerick, mainly because he spends the family’s little money at the pub.

In the past, Alan Parker has directed with a sledgehammer (particularly in Midnight Express and Mississippi Burning) — skillfully wielded, true, but some of us get tired of being hammered. Working with less sensational material, though, Parker relaxes; he doesn’t have to push so hard. Angela’s Ashes is actually fairly similar to his best film (for me), 1982’s divorce drama Shoot the Moon, also about a pathetic husband and father trying to hold his family together in the face of his wife’s contempt; the movies could be bookend pieces — the dysfunctional family in America and Ireland. (The absent father was also a theme in his Pink Floyd – The Wall, though that was more Roger Waters’ conception.) Here, Parker’s work is naturalistic yet subtly stylized. You see the beauty in the Limerick slums because that’s what the young Frank sees; he has no choice.

Parker isn’t just a cold technician; he usually gets rich performances, and he guides Watson and Carlyle through specific portraits of misery, not just stereotypes of the Drunken Dad and Bitter Mom. The actors make you feel the hopelessness of their situation; they see no beauty in their surroundings. Parker has also deftly cast the young Frank with three impressive child actors (Joe Breen as the little Frank, Ciaran Owens as the adolescent Frank, Michael Legge as the teen Frank), even though they don’t much resemble each other. It’s as if the harsh life in Limerick had reshaped Frank’s features at each stage of development.

I suppose some admirers of the book may be disappointed: A book is a book and a film is a film. And it’s one thing to read about McCourt’s long list of childhood tragedies — it’s quite another to actually see the dying babies, the grotesque living conditions, the sheep’s head served for Christmas dinner. I sympathize with those who find the movie Angela’s Ashes too depressing, but on some level, perhaps, in removing much of Frank McCourt’s distancing lyricism, Parker has given us a more honest account. Should dying babies not be depressing?

Cradle Will Rock

December 25, 1999

Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock casts its net out for a lot of fish; it’s not surprising that only a few of them make it into the boat, then flip right back out again. The movie roves around in the arty New York scene of 1937, when poverty and politics rubbed elbows with painting and performance. The rich are getting richer at the painful expense of the poor; capitalism is starting not to seem like such a humane idea, so a lot of frustrated people are turning to the rhetoric of socialism or communism (which have their own pitfalls). Robbins tries to cover all this and Orson Welles, too. Cradle Will Rock is an amiable jumble, a sort of Schoolhouse Rock primer on the tenor of the ’30s and an homage to free expression.

The sprawl here is about an hour shorter than another recent ambitious misfire, Magnolia, and is therefore more forgivable. Besides, it’s about something (its trouble is that it’s about too much, a dilemma I almost wish more movies shared). Robbins has become an easy and elegant director: he loosens his collar and takes us right into the action, trying a few things that don’t come off (a pair of strange muses¹ haunting playwright Marc Blitzstein, for instance), but never putting too much stress on them. His camera is active and alert without calling attention to itself, giving us a sense of teeming simultaneity: Things are happening here, all around, and the characters are sprinting to keep up with history.

So is Robbins’ script, unfortunately. Generally, each character steps forward and defines himself, either politically or artistically, sometimes both at once. Some of this rattling on is engaging, depending on who’s delivering it (I enjoyed the rapport between Ruben Blades’ Diego Rivera and John Cusack’s Nelson Rockefeller), but other characters, such as the waifish homeless singer Olive (Emily Watson) and, oddly, the blustering Orson Welles (Angus Macfadyen), never really say anything. (The Welles of this film is like a frat boy who somehow got entrusted with a theater company.) Robbins also tosses in some padding, such as the anti-communist Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack) and the on-the-fence ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw (Bill Murray), who seems to go along with Hazel’s views because he’s been snubbed by the allegedly communist Federal Theatre.

Robbins builds the political tensions until they come to a head with the suppression of Marc Blitzstein’s pro-union play The Cradle Will Rock, which Welles’ company wants to perform. Forbidden from acting it out on stage, the troupe in real life performed the play, songs and all, from their seats among the audience. Realizing that a climax involving a dozen talented people sitting down isn’t very cinematic, Robbins cashes in his artistic license and lets the actors roam all around the theater — at a certain point, you figure they might as well be on the stage. What should strike us as a great moment of ingenuity and a defiant gesture — and has been chronicled as such in various Welles biographies — comes off instead as a stunt, and the play itself doesn’t seem as if it was ever that impressive.

Perhaps that’s not the point. The performance is intercut with images of hammers smashing the giant mural Diego Rivera painted for Nelson Rockefeller, and the film may be saying that art will endure even if the corporate philistines and political bulldogs temporarily smash it down. Well, yes, art endures if well-meaning directors like Tim Robbins make a movie about it. There’s a whiff of liberal self-congratulation about Cradle Will Rock. The movie’s radical stance is that artists should get to do their art without being destroyed by mean rich people, and aren’t we just wonderful for agreeing with that?

Tim Robbins has the technique and facility with actors to make a great movie, but he needs to stop trying so hard to enlighten us. After all, Orson Welles wasn’t out to improve anyone’s political consciousness with Citizen Kane — he was just having a great time, and Robbins could stand to do a little hell-raising himself. Entertainment comes first; enlightenment takes care of itself.

¹These are Blitzstein’s late wife Eva and Bertolt Brecht. Robbins doesn’t exactly bend over backwards to make this clear to an audience that hasn’t done the homework beforehand.

Galaxy Quest

December 25, 1999

Combine the documentary Trekkies with a particularly solid and action-packed Star Trek movie and you’ve got Galaxy Quest, an enormously entertaining pop-culture ride. Not just an in-joke fest for Trekkies, it trades on our general awareness of the Star Trek cult and at least a passing familiarity with the show (mainly the original series) and movies. The premise, cooked up by writers Robert Gordon and David Howard, is so ingenious I’m surprised nobody thought of it before: What if a group of has-been TV actors were genuinely mistaken for the heroic starship crew they used to play, and were expected to know everything their characters used to know? This postmodern concept far outdoes Last Action Hero, and is a lot more satisfying. Galaxy Quest works as satire, parody, and straight adventure; it’s a full package.

We meet our heroes at the latest of many fan conventions in honor of Galaxy Quest, the well-loved, long-dead sci-fi series. There’s Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver), who used to play Lt. Tawny Madison, whose job was to talk to the computer and show off her pulchritude. There’s Tommy Webber (Daryl Mitchell), who was a little boy when he played ship pilot Lt. Laredo and is now all grown up. (The movie could have had some fun by portraying the older Tommy as a skirt-chaser like Burt Ward; maybe it once did, but DreamWorks tidied up the film to secure a kid-friendly PG rating.) There’s the disdainful Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman), a respected theater actor until he agreed to put alien latex on his head to play the Spock-like Dr. Lazarus; the role made him famous and killed his credibility in one shot. There’s the lackadaisical Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub), forever stuck in the bowels of the ship as Tech Sgt. Chen. Finally, there’s Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen), the prima-donnaish star of Galaxy Quest, who on some level still seems to believe he’s Commander Peter Quincy Taggart. Nesmith is the only one who really gets anything out of the endless conventions, where he’s idolized; everyone else in the cast looks out at the throngs of “Questerians” and sees the murderers of their careers.

The opening scene at the Galaxy Quest convention will probably frighten those who didn’t see Trekkies; those who did will laugh heartily at how uncannily accurate the milieu is (the movie doesn’t even try to satirize Trekkies, who are often so ludicrous as to be beyond satire). It’s at this convention that Nesmith meets a quartet of very avid fans. They look and talk strange, and are extremely adamant about wanting “Commander Taggart” to accompany them so he can save their race. They’re pretty much like anyone else you’d meet at a convention, and Nesmith blows them off until they come for him in a limo that turns out to be a spacecraft. The hung-over Nesmith wakes up in deep space among the Thermians, the friendly alien race who brought him there. The Thermians are on the brink of war with a band of ugly Stan Winston-designed critters — the usual gang of bestial aliens who seem to exist only to go around dominating other races all day. Once Nesmith figures out the Thermians and this situation are real, he sends for his “crewmates” (a disposable crewman who appeared in one episode and got killed, played by Sam Rockwell, also tags along). So then we have a bunch of hack actors taking their old places on a ship designed by the Thermians in homage to the “historical documents” (i.e., Galaxy Quest) they picked up in transmissions.

Galaxy Quest is directed with a light, fast pace by Dean Parisot (Home Fries and the Oscar-winning short The Appointments of Dennis Jennings), who effectively delivers all the special-effects power and thrills of a real Star Trek movie, only without all the gassy moralizing and shallow moral conundrums. Here, the dilemma cuts closer to the bone: The Thermians look up to Nesmith and company as historical legends, which even the egotistical Nesmith knows they don’t deserve. And there’s a legitimately painful moment when Nesmith is forced to admit to the Thermian leader (Enrico Colantoni) that he and his crew are “liars” (since the Thermians have no concept of acting or performing). The movie blurs the line between actual belief and fanboy belief: There’s not a lot of difference between the Thermians and the pimply geeks at conventions who ask Nesmith elaborate technical questions to settle some fanboy dispute. Yet in a pinch, when Nesmith and crew need tech support, those fanboys come in very handy.

Parisot has assembled a top-flight cast — a lot more colorful, really, than the casts of any version of Star Trek. For those wary of Galaxy Quest because Tim Allen is the star, I can assure you this is probably the first good movie he’s appeared in. He doesn’t try to “do” William Shatner, but he nails Shatner’s puffed-up arrogance and hyperdramatic line readings (but only when in character as Taggart on the show; as Nesmith, he delivers lines like an actual human being). It’s nice to see Sigourney Weaver in a comedy again — it reminds you that before she became a Serious Hollywood Actress, she goofed around in Christopher Durang plays. She’s a great sport, and she obviously gets a kick out of playing Gwen the blonde bimbo who finally gets to prove herself. The others in the cast — the hilariously withering Rickman, the bored-looking Shalhoub (he couldn’t be more unlike the excitable ship engineer Scotty), the panicky Mitchell — are equally fine, but it’s Sam Rockwell who walks away with the movie, just as he stole The Green Mile as the chocolate-spewing Wild Bill. Here, as “Crewman Six,” he lives in fear that he’s expendable — he goes into every new action sequence absolutely certain he’s going to get killed. I do have one small quibble involving his character: He should’ve been the one to pull out a phaser and triumph at the very end — not Nesmith, who hardly needs more audience applause.

In a weird way, Galaxy Quest also fits nicely into the current psychology of American movies. Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, American Beauty, Boys Don’t Cry, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Man on the Moon — they’re all about wanting or pretending to be someone else. Since this is a Hollywood family movie, Galaxy Quest ends on a high note, with the pretenders learning to be the real McCoys (no pun intended). Granted, a darker comedy might have had the crew of has-been actors be so arrogant that they get the Thermians killed because they really don’t know what they’re doing. But this crew is so likable that we want them to succeed — sort of like the Enterprise crew in the best Trek installments. I just have two questions: Are we looking at DreamWorks’ first-ever franchise here (that depends on how well this first movie does), and will there be action figures? I for one wouldn’t pass up a Gwen DeMarco figure.

The Talented Mr. Ripley

December 24, 1999

At best, The Talented Mr. Ripley is a smoothly executed thriller with lovely shots of Italy; I wonder if all those critics would have named it one of the year’s best films if it were set in, say, Cleveland. The movie goes tidily about its business, without much of the perversity you’d expect of a Patricia Highsmith story (she wrote five Ripley novels, and also the source material for Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train). Tom Ripley, the protagonist who specializes in deception, should strike us as an alluring rat; in the movie, Matt Damon plays him, so Ripley morphs into a well-meaning kid who yearns to be somebody. He’s deprived, not depraved.

Ripley is sent to Italy by shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) to find and retrieve his wastrel son Dickie (Jude Law), who spends his time and Dad’s money in Italy, sunning himself and sailing a boat named after Charlie Parker. Ripley is sent in the first place because the father thinks Ripley (wearing a borrowed Princeton jacket) went to school with Dickie; Ripley doesn’t argue with this mistaken assumption, and soon he’s hanging out with Dickie and his girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), who also believe Ripley is a Princeton man.

I suppose everyone believes Ripley because they’re all rich, and aren’t used to dealing with people desperate enough to lie about their status. They’re also quite self-absorbed; whenever someone asks Ripley a potentially incriminating question, they inevitably answer it themselves and save him the trouble. The only one sharp enough to cut through Ripley’s deception is Dickie’s old chum Freddy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who pegs Ripley as a wannabe the moment he lays eyes on him. Every time Freddy lurches into the picture, Matt Damon’s million-dollar smile sours and Philip Seymour Hoffman effortlessly tucks the movie into his pocket — we enjoy watching him enjoying Ripley’s discomfort.

Writer-director Anthony Minghella sets things up so that Ripley gradually takes over the life he envies — Dickie’s — and then gets caught in the tangled web he’s weaving. Sadly, this means the early disposal of Jude Law, from whose absence the movie never fully recovers; we’re left mostly with the earnest Ripley, the dreary Marge (this isn’t Paltrow’s finest hour), and another character Minghella invented for the movie — Meredith (Cate Blanchett), who exists to complicate things for Ripley every so often. Despite Blanchett’s radiance no matter what she’s doing, the character is a drag and emphasizes how implausible these situations are.

I was an early fan of Minghella’s dating back to his first feature, Truly Madly Deeply, which offered a rare gentle performance from Alan Rickman; I also enjoyed his big hit The English Patient. With the possible exception of his second effort, a Matt Dillon vehicle called Mr. Wonderful (I haven’t seen it), Minghella doesn’t make stupid movies. Here, though, he has made a smart-seeming movie about mostly stupid people. It’s difficult to care about Ripley, and the movie suffers from the unhappy accident of being the second movie in which a lower-class young man pretends to be Jude Law — I refer, of course, to Gattaca, which in its way was much more complex than this movie, yet didn’t make very many ten-best lists. (It wasn’t set in Italy.)

There are a few stellar moments: a violent bit of business aboard a boat is wincingly painful; that great bulldog Philip Baker Hall turns up near the end, no-nonsense and presumably ready to fry Ripley’s bacon (Hall should turn up near the end of every movie just on principle). But the void at the core of the movie sucks in all the good. Matt Damon looks consistently ill at ease, and I couldn’t decide whether he was nervous in character or nervous playing Ripley. His line readings are all wrong for the period (the late ’50s), from his Macaulay Culkin-ish “Yes!” near the beginning to his tentative “Okay” near the end — he inflects the word like anyone in 1999 would. The movie rests on his shoulders, and he can’t carry it, especially in the homoerotic scenes when he never quite lets you forget he’s Matt Damon playing a role. All this discomfort and dissembling could conceivably work for the guilt-wracked character of Tom Ripley, but it doesn’t. The Talented Mr. Ripley has at its center a perfectly good actor whose talents lie elsewhere.

Any Given Sunday

December 22, 1999

Has Oliver Stone burned out on political cinema? There was a time when his movies seemed to matter — when his vision, from the muckraking Salvador to the notorious Natural Born Killers, turned an ugly funhouse mirror on the American nightmare. Two years ago, Stone made the offbeat film noir U-Turn, which for him amounted to goofing off. It was, admittedly, a relief to see him just settle down and have fun with a movie and not try to rock our conscience. But in Stone’s new one, Any Given Sunday, he continues to goof off — this time at very tedious length.

Stone’s JFK warranted its three-hour-plus running time, as did his Nixon. But what made him think a movie about a fictional football team — especially one with such a banal story — needed to sprawl for two hours and forty-two minutes? Any Given Sunday is about Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino), head coach of the Miami Sharks, who are on a four-game losing streak. The Sharks’ reliable veteran quarterback (Dennis Quaid, equally as reliable) has been sidelined, and the reins pass to an untested rookie, Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx). Willie is soon making up his own plays and “putting points on the board.” He gets a big head, while Tony frets and gives the young hotshot many grim talkings-to. Meanwhile, team owner Cameron Diaz, who inherited the Sharks from Daddy, wants Tony to keep Willie on the field against Tony’s (and pretty much everyone else’s) better judgment.

Pacino injects the movie with what little life it has — getting his voice up in his familiar airhorn bellow; pacing on the sidelines like a dark-maned lion; giving many, many inspirational halftime speeches for which Stone and co-writer John Logan should get down on their knees and thank Pacino for selling so effectively. James Woods is around, too, for about five minutes total; he plays an unscrupulous team doctor who just squirts the players with whatever drugs they need to keep going, and he performs the same function on the movie in his few scenes. But then he’s fired, to be replaced by an atypically dull Matthew Modine as a younger and more idealistic doctor whose crises of conscience amount to nothing.

I think you’d have to be a very undiscriminating football die-hard to get anything out of Any Given Sunday. As drama, it’s dead in the water; as a football movie, it fails because Stone’s by-now-tiresome jumpy camera never lets you see what’s going on in any of the games. The editing whizbang here makes Natural Born Killers look like Barry Lyndon; the movie should be called Any Given Shot. Stone jacks up the fake excitement with lots of punishing techno and rock-rap music, as if trying to jolt us awake (I nodded off several times anyway). The football sequences play like hyperactive commercials for a PlayStation football game. The style combines incoherence and aggression, a deadly mix.

Why did Oliver Stone want to do this movie? Maybe, at age 53, he’s feeling his oats and wanted to dive headfirst into a revivifying pool of testosterone — a king-hell Guy Movie (they should pump aftershave fumes into the theater to make the experience complete), where men are men and women are either scolds, whores, or bitches. (Stone has seldom known how to portray women, but Any Given Sunday is real neanderthal time.) The movie may be a sort of cinematic dose of Viagra for Stone — he’s trying to prove he can keep pounding harder and longer than anyone. I think he also sees himself as a cross between the beleaguered coach Tony and the agonized old quarterback played by Dennis Quaid. He may consider himself a man’s man drowning in a world of young man’s rules, and flailing frantically to stay afloat. It’s as exhausting for us as it must be for him. The best football movie — North Dallas Forty, a powerful example of everything this movie isn’t — came in at 119 minutes. Someone should have told Stone he could make a decent football movie at under two hours and still be considered macho. Size doesn’t matter, Oliver.

Man on the Moon

December 22, 1999

Here’s a little agit for the never-believer
Here’s a little ghost for the offering

Andy Kaufman has been dead for 15 years, and people are still waiting for him to come back. In a way, of course, he never left, and in Man on the Moon he borrows Jim Carrey’s body for a while. Carrey is among the dozens of comedians who worship Andy as a sort of found object of comedic genius, a guru of transgression — Kaufman was always more of a comedian’s comedian than an audience-pleaser. Here, after all, was a man who quite intentionally bombed on stage; sometimes he would snatch victory from the jaws of defeat — taking a hard left into some funny bit of business that let the audience know he was “doing” a comedian bombing — and sometimes he would go down in flames. Kaufman’s style was as layered as an onion: You laughed (in disbelief, more often than not) at the surface of what he was doing; you laughed at the idea of someone actually doing this; you laughed at yourself for sitting there watching it; finally, you laughed at, and with, Kaufman for having the balls to treat the stage as his ongoing lab experiment.

The genius of Man on the Moon is that it’s an onion inside an onion. How do you make a biopic about someone who had no “personal life” — a man to whom one character says, “There isn’t a real you”? Answer: You don’t. Man on the Moon is an anti-biopic, fully befitting Kaufman’s brand of anti-comedy. Some will inevitably call it merely a greatest-hits collection: Here’s Andy doing Mighty Mouse, here’s Andy as Latka, here’s Andy’s bleating lounge-singer alter ego Tony Clifton, here’s Andy wrestling women, here’s Andy feuding with Jerry Lawler, here’s Andy dying. And on some level, that’s exactly what it is: Why are we sitting here watching a talented, original comedian knock himself out impersonating another? We know all this greatest-hits stuff, we’ve seen it dozens of times on Comedy Central; we’re here to learn things we didn’t know. But the movie, like Kaufman, gives you no more or less than what it wants to give you. Man on the Moon can be seen, in part, as Andy’s final postmodern triumph: At the end of two hours, we don’t really “know” him any better than we did before. Of course, most of the people who knew him for years could say the same thing. He was, and is, unknowable; that was part of his mystique and his style.

Yes, the movie slips us an insight here and there. Example: Kaufman’s whole women-wrestling thing, it turns out, was a fetish; he did it primarily because it turned him on, and he wound up in bed with a lot of his opponents after the show. (His pop-eyed charisma was such that the women somehow agreed to sleep with him even after he publicly defeated and humiliated them.) But factoids like this are available in two biographies published about Kaufman: Bill Zehme’s Lost in the Funhouse, and Andy Kaufman Revealed by Kaufman’s best friend and comedy partner Bob Zmuda (played in the film by Paul Giamatti). What Man on the Moon shows you, illustrating these factoids, is that Kaufman’s odd pleasures were inseparable from his act. Whatever excited him, he would find some way to include in his performance, whether or not it fit neatly or even comedically. Self-indulgence often kills art; Kaufman transformed self-indulgence into art.

After a clever opening that recalls the beginning of The Andy Kaufman Special (aka Andy’s Funhouse, Kaufman’s long-lost TV special unearthed on TV Land), the movie skims briskly across Kaufman’s life, a rise-and-fall epic telescoped into two hours. If Man on the Moon has a flaw, it’s that it’s too concise: An entire interesting movie could be made about Kaufman’s grudging six-year tour of duty on Taxi (where he was resented and misunderstood by most of the cast), or about his wrestling period, which even his steadfast fans and admiring comedian peers lost patience with (the video I’m from Hollywood, which chronicles Kaufman’s women-wrestling and flamboyantly hostile feud with Memphis wrestling king Jerry Lawler, is essential viewing).

Some of the movie depends on what you bring to it. When Kaufman goes on the first show of Saturday Night Live with his Mighty Mouse act, he stands around for a while onstage in nervous silence, with live cameras rolling, while a frantic techie whispers in Lorne Michaels’ ear, “This is dead air.” Michaels (one of several real-life Kaufman acquaintances failing to look years younger playing themselves here) just nods and says nothing. It helps to know that the first SNL show was in grave danger of going over 90 minutes, and that there was tremendous pressure on Michaels to cut Kaufman’s bit. Michaels fought tooth and nail to keep Andy in the show. The scene in the movie is a subtle foreshortening of all this: no cliched reply from Michaels along the lines of “Just watch this guy, trust me,” just a nod as if to say “I know. It’s dead air. That’s the act.” This scene also stands in for all the other Kaufman bits on SNL, where the Not Ready for Prime Time Players warily respected him as a talented outsider but found him a bit weird and unapproachable (one vehement exception was John Belushi, who not only loved Andy’s act but hung out with him whenever he did the show, watching wrestling in his dressing room).

Man on the Moon represents the final film in an oddball trilogy by screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who seem to have devoted themselves to chronicling the lives of holy fools of entertainment — they also wrote Ed Wood (directed by Tim Burton) and The People Vs. Larry Flynt (directed by Milos Forman, who also does the honors here). I’m not as big a fan of those other two films as some people are. They each have rich and unusual moments you won’t see in any other movie, and they boast terrific performances by eclectic casts, but I didn’t feel the movies squared with what we know about Ed Wood or Larry Flynt. In both cases, the writers indulged in well-meaning revisionism, sanding down the rough edges of these men and elevating their dubious achievements so that Wood and Flynt seemed like misunderstood geniuses — of film, of First Amendment rights. Actually, I think those men were understood perfectly well as the opportunists and hustlers (no pun intended) they were, so I didn’t buy the writers’ soft-focus canonization.

However, Andy Kaufman’s entire act was based on being misunderstood, so the writers do a much better job with him, and they don’t pretend his performances somehow contributed to the greater good. Kaufman could be an exasperating prick, and the movie acknowledges that: However much you enjoy watching Andy’s pranks and antics, you wouldn’t want to be on the set of Taxi on an eleven-hour workday and have to deal with Tony Clifton. Alexander and Karaszewski also don’t pretend to “know” Kaufman, any more than Bob Zmuda or Andy’s girlfriend Lynne Margulies (Courtney Love, giving her second funky and engaging performance for Milos Forman despite having less to do this time). There’s none of the sanctimony here that often marred Forman’s People Vs. Larry Flynt, in which you were either for Larry or for the asshole prudes who tried to bring him down — the movie offered no middle ground. The First Amendment isn’t at stake here, just a career flaming out. And Forman and the writers present Kaufman’s career failure as his perverse victory.

Kaufman’s hijinks, of course, drive his manager George Shapiro (Danny DeVito) to distraction. How can you manage the career of someone who keeps blowing it up? DeVito gives a quietly frustrated performance as this commonsense vulgarian, the voice of reason who says, “Are you doing this to entertain the audience, or yourself?” Kaufman’s response is to leave the room — he knows Shapiro has a point. The casting of DeVito in this role adds another layer of irony, since the real breakout star of Taxi wasn’t Kaufman (whose post-Taxi career floundered) but Danny DeVito, who went on to become a respected director and actor (too few people saw him in Living Out Loud, a heartfelt change of pace for him, and a beautifully calibrated performance). Together on Taxi, Kaufman and DeVito were polar opposites: Kaufman’s Latka was a naive, huggable blowfish, DeVito’s Louie a snapping turtle with a sharp beak. Offscreen, DeVito was about the only cast member who got along with Andy (Jeff Conaway, for one, hated his guts, and you can see the sour-faced, silent Conaway in the movie, a has-been hating Kaufman beyond the grave), and there’s a touching subtext in DeVito’s reunion with Kaufman Version 2.0.

By now, so much has been written about Jim Carrey’s subjugation to the essence of Andy that to heap further praise on him could risk redundancy. There’s a central tension between Kaufman and Carrey, though: Kaufman was passive-aggressive — Carrey is just plain aggressive. Kaufman was better than Carrey at faking flop sweat: Carrey is as fearless as Kaufman was, yet when Carrey mimics Kaufman shuffling his feet nervously, waiting for his cue to lip-sync Mighty Mouse, you don’t get the feeling that Carrey’s Kaufman might actually be nervous. (Kaufman loved to bomb onstage, but he knew how to simulate stage fright convincingly.) And it’s hard at first to get past the physical differences: Kaufman was schlumpy and soft, Carrey is handsome and sharp-featured — Edward Norton, who was also in the running for the role, would have resembled Andy more closely. But Carrey nails Kaufman’s manic entertainer’s drive — his sense of fun, his view of the world as his playpen. Carrey is also affecting in his dramatic moments. Near the end of the movie, when the dying Andy jets to the Phillippines for a miracle cure for his cancer and discovers that the “psychic surgeon” is a quack — a faker, just like him — Carrey’s gallows laughter alone is worth an Oscar.

Man on the Moon is a teeming, fast-paced spin through a particularly strange show-biz life. It does justice to Kaufman’s mystique and genius without pinning him down with psychobabble. The very end, which recreates Tony Clifton’s comeback concert appearance a year after Kaufman’s death, seems a bit too literal-minded — a bone thrown to the many people who believe Kaufman faked his death. Yet emotionally it feels right. Even those closest to Andy thought he was kidding when he told them about his fatal lung cancer (he didn’t even smoke), and to this day his friends aren’t absolutely sure he isn’t out there somewhere. (Not long before the movie premiered, the National Enquirer ran a photo of Kaufman’s death certificate as irrefutable proof that he really is dead. The “Andy lives” theorists will simply point out that Kaufman often submitted bogus stories about himself to the Enquirer.)

The Andy-faked-his-death theory actually makes more sense than the comparable theories about Elvis, James Dean, or Jim Morrison, because Kaufman had talked about doing it, and it’s natural to believe that this was his ultimate joke on everyone. I think the joke goes deeper than that. What if Kaufman knew, years before he actually revealed it, that he had cancer that would eventually kill him? What if he then set out on a highly visible career, packing decades of bizarre experience into one decade of stardom, and gaining a rep for pranks and hoaxes? Then, when he died, everyone would think he faked it, and the speculation would endure for years. His actual death, not his faked death, was his ultimate self-perpetuating joke on us all. Man on the Moon simply keeps the joke going.

Girl, Interrupted

December 21, 1999

Susanna Kaysen’s 1993 memoir Girl, Interrupted comes in at a lean, mean 169 pages; you could probably read it in less time than it takes to watch the movie version. Kaysen’s terse little book, with its anecdotal, chronologically jumpy structure, doesn’t seem like the stuff of a movie. There is one compelling reason to make a movie out of Girl, Interrupted, though: meaty roles for an eager young female ensemble. On that level, and on several others, the movie triumphs.

Girl, Interrupted begins in 1967, when the 18-year-old Susanna (Winona Ryder) is sent to a New England psychiatric hospital after an apparent suicide attempt — swallowing fifty aspirin — though she keeps insisting she wasn’t trying to kill herself. Nor does she see herself as crazy, though she definitely knows she’s miserable, and she has an odd preoccupation with patterns and a nagging fear that she has no bones in her hands. Given a nudge one way or the other, Susanna could turn out to be a highly original artist, seeing the world as no one else does, or a homeless person ranting in Harvard Square. Or both. But she’s caught in that painful limbo where she doesn’t know what she is — a common malady of 18-year-olds of any gender or era, whether or not they are suicidal on top of it.

At Claymore Hospital, Susanna is tossed in among some genuinely disturbed girls: her roomie Georgina (Clea DuVall), a pathological liar; Polly (Elizabeth Moss), who burned her face off when she was ten; Daisy (Brittany Murphy), who’s fixated on chicken and laxatives. The real star of Kaysen’s narrative, though, isn’t Susanna herself. It’s Lisa (Angelina Jolie), a free-spirited sociopath who keeps escaping the hospital and being brought back in handcuffs. Lisa is presented as a kind of life force, an explosion of Technicolor in this gray place; she represents everything Susanna wishes she could be, though there’s more to Lisa than meets the eye.

For much of her screen time, Winona Ryder (who nurtured this project over a long development period and served as a producer) plays straight woman to Angelina Jolie; she simply sits back and gives the movie to Jolie without a struggle. Lisa is probably any young actress’s dream role, and Jolie tears into it with sharp talons — unafraid to seem unsympathetic, yet keeping our sympathies anyway, because even when Lisa is monstrous (her response to a tragedy late in the movie chills the blood), Jolie shows us the pain behind it. Lisa has developed such thick skin against suffering — her own and others’ — that some part of her has shut down. What’s left is a grinning mask that plays up to society’s perception of her.

Director James Mangold (Heavy, Cop Land), who worked on the script with Lisa Loomer and Anna Hamilton Phelan, tries to put some beef on Kaysen’s lean narrative. Some of it comes off as flab, as when some of the girls get together for an after-hours game of bowling. Generally, though, Mangold has quiet, subtle control of this highly emotional material; as he showed in his previous films, he has a fine feel for defeated, depressed characters — secret societies of outcasts or misfits.

The emotional highs and lows in Girl, Interrupted are honestly earned. This isn’t a nobility-of-the-insane piece, or a triumph-of-the-human-spirit fable. It’s just the story of one girl and the other wounded girls she spent 18 months with. And the moviemakers give the story a classical shape — and a double meaning for the title — that Kaysen’s memoir didn’t have. In the book, Lisa wasn’t used as a cautionary figure; Kaysen described running into a happier, healthier Lisa (who’d had a son) years later. In the movie, we see that Susanna wasn’t only interrupted in her life; she was, as Kaysen points out, flirting with madness, and the movie’s Lisa represents what Susanna no longer wants to become. Susanna is interrupted on her way to being Lisa; at the end, we feel, she’s begun to figure out how to be herself.