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.