FILMS

Intimate stories

A crop of movies that marry comedy and drama

Brian D. Johnson January 9 1989
FILMS

Intimate stories

A crop of movies that marry comedy and drama

Brian D. Johnson January 9 1989

Intimate stories

FILMS

A crop of movies that marry comedy and drama

North American moviegoers who are hung over from too much Hollywood cheer—such light-comedy confections as Scrooged and Twins—can clear their heads in the new year with a tonic dose of films with substance. Exploring themes ranging from brotherly love to bigotry, half a dozen new movies premiered late last month, just in time to qualify for 1988 Oscars. And they offer some of the year’s most striking examples of strong acting and literate screenwriting. The list includes two bittersweet comedy-dramas about odd couples: Rain Man, a story of male bonding, and Beaches, a tale of two women. The Accidental Tourist, based on the novel by Anne Tyler, presents a quirky romance about a travel writer seeking escape from emotional trauma. And sexual decadence in 18th-century France is the subject of Dangerous Liaisons, Hollywood’s screen version of the provocative play Les Liaisons dangeureuses. Another adaptation of a stage work, Talk Radio, provides shock value of a more contemporary—and brutal—sort. Like the widely acclaimed Mississippi Burning, it batters the senses with a gruelling excursion into American racism.

But most of the new movies are intimate stories that aim for a delicate compromise between comedy and drama. And perhaps none

strikes a more satisfying balance than Rain Man. It brings together two Hollywood stars with utterly different reputations: Dustin Hoffman, a meticulous method actor who received an Oscar nomination for impersonating a woman in Tootsie, and Tom Cruise, a glamor boy with a big smile who juggled drinks and women as a bartender in Cocktail. In Rain Man,

Hoffman and Cruise play long-lost brothers who are thrown together by the death of their multimillionaire father. Raymond (Hoffman) has been diagnosed as an “autistic savant”—although he suffers from the mental disorder autism, which impairs his ability to communicate and comprehend, he can perform extraordinary feats of observation, memory and computation. Charlie (Cruise), Raymond’s younger brother, is a fast-talking salesman who imports Italian sports cars.

Raymond, a mental patient with no concept of money, inherits $3 million in trust from his father’s will. Meanwhile, Charlie is infuriated to learn that his father has left him only a 1949 Buick Roadmaster convertible and a rose garden. Hoping to get his hands on his brother’s inheritance, Charlie abducts him from a Cincinnati mental institution with the intention of taking him home to Los Angeles. Like Charles Grodin’s character in Midnight Run— another 1988 road movie about buddies cross-

ing America—Raymond refuses to fly and stages a tantrum in the airport. And that allows for a classic cross-country excursion by car.

A difficult travelling companion, Raymond is wedded to a rigid routine. He must have his apple juice and tapioca pudding at the stroke of noon; he cannot bear to miss his favorite TV game show; he insists on sleeping beside a window. At first, Charlie treats him callously, telling him to “stop acting like an idiot.” But then he begins to marvel at his brother’s freakish mental powers: Raymond can memorize a phone book in a few hours or glance at a heap of spilled toothpicks and say exactly how many there are.

Rain Man’s script is running on empty by the time the brothers reach California. And _ director Barry Levinson, who

also made Good Morning Vietnam, cushions the narrative with too much sentiment. But wonderful performances make it a memorable trip. Hoffman has by far the juicier role, an opportunity to transform himself almost as radically as he did in Tootsie. Adopting a little-boy voice and a repertoire of nervous gestures, he creates a cute, lovably innocent character. And the impassive mask of autism serves as a grand pretext for deadpan humor. In the shadow of Hoffman’s dazzling virtuosity, Cruise has to work hard as the straight man. But as a selfish hustler who is slowly transformed into a caring brother, Cruise delivers the finest performance of his career. In Beaches, the chemistry between Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey is much less productive. The Divine Miss M. seems unable to share the camera with another woman. As with the 1988 comedy Big Business, in which she practically elbowed Lily Tomlin off the screen, Midler reduces Hershey to a cipher. And the whole exercise seems unduly selfserving in light of the fact that Midler was also one of the movie’s producers. Beaches is a saga of two best friends from opposite sides of the tracks. Hillary (Hershey) is a lawyer from an upper-class family; CC Bloom (Midler) is a singer who has sashayed her way from the gutter to stardom. After first meeting on a beach as children, they begin a lifelong friendship with all the emotional ups and downs of a bad marriage. The first two-thirds of the movie unfold as

comedy, with Midler mugging at every opportunity. Then the plot takes a maudlin downturn as one of the characters succumbs to a drawnout terminal illness. The comic and tragic tides of Beaches seem unconnected, and Hershey’s character appears to have so little in common with Midler’s that it is hard to believe they could be friends. Midler delivers enough sultry torch songs and tart one-liners to keep her fans enthralled. But it is time that she dropped the pretence of sisterly collaboration and concentrated on the more simple business of her own stardom.

Worlds removed from the brashness of Beaches, The Accidental Tourist is a romantic comedy with a beautifully backhanded sense of humor. William Hurt portrays Macon, a writer who offers reluctant travellers advice on how to minimize the trauma of leaving home—tips on how to avoid conversations with strangers on airplanes and where to find American food in foreign cities. Macon’s own quietly ordered universe is suddenly shattered when his wife, Sarah (Kathleen Turner), deserts him. For a while, he distracts himself with compulsive

homemaking. Then, a broken leg forces him to retreat to his grandparents’ house, where his three strangely misanthropic siblings still live. Macon tries his best to shut out the world. But through his irascible pet corgi, he meets a bizarre dog-trainer named Muriel (Geena Davis), who makes a persistent play for his affections and slowly lures him out of his shell.

As a comedy, Accidental Tourist is smart, witty and sophisticated. Davis, perhaps best known as the woman who watched her lover become an insect in 1986’s The Fly, creates a wonderfully zany character who pursues love with the tenacity of a dog digging for a bone. And Macon’s eccentric family is like an animated New Yorker cartoon. But as a romance, the movie falters. It reunites director Lawrence Kasdan with Hurt and Turner, who steamed up the screen together in Body Heat. But in The Accidental Tourist, Turner’s role is far too perfunctory. Meanwhile, as the obtuse and

vacant-eyed Macon, Hurt could give Hoffman lessons in autism. A cerebral actor at the best of times, Hurt pushes back new frontiers of introversion in The Accidental Tourist, delivering a performance so subdued that he seems in danger of nodding off.

By contrast, there is nothing understated about Dangerous Liaisons, a lavish costume drama prickling with wit, mischief and erotic intrigue. British playwright Christopher Hampton adapted the movie’s script from his own hit play, which was in turn based on the 1782 novel by French author Choderlos de Laclos. It is a classic story of sexual gamesmanship practised by two seasoned cynics, the Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) and the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich). Close, who portrayed a villainous home-wrecker in 1987’s Fatal Attraction, explores evil from another angle as the icy Merteuil. Malkovich, who portrayed a courtly suitor in the 1987 screen version of The Glass Menagerie, plays her soldier of seduction, the roguish Valmont.

The naughtiness begins with a cruel request. Furious that her latest lover has left her to

marry a young virgin, Merteuil asks Valmont to seduce and deflower the bride-to-be, Cecile (Urna Thurman). But Valmont prefers the greater challenge of seducing a virtuous married woman, Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer). Still bent on ruining Cecile, Merteuil tries to arrange a romance between her and a shy young music teacher, portrayed by Toronto-raised actor Keanu Reeves. As seductions and betrayals multiply, passion and cruelty converge on a collision course.

Britain’s Stephen Frears has directed Dangerous Liaisons with a boldly contemporary touch. In his previous films My Beautiful Laundrette (1986) and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), he explored the alienation of England’s urban underclass. Now, he dissects 18th-century decadence with the same ironic detachment. Hampton’s dialogue has a decidedly modem ring to it, especially coming from American actors. Malkovich’s archly mannered performance perversely defies period conventions. And Close’s Merteuil resembles a modern sex therapist as she tells Cecile, “Providing you take some elementary precautions, you can do it with as many men as you like as often as you like in as many different ways as you like.” Both are experienced stage actors, and Frears seems unafraid to exploit their theatricality. He also draws an exceptionally strong performance from Pfeiffer, who has already won acclaim this year for her work in Married to the Mob and Tequila Sunrise. As the tormented Tourvel, her glacier-blue eyes turning bloodshot from tears, she reveals that there is surprising emotional range behind her alabaster beauty.

Sexy and satirical, Liaisons is a pageant of powdered wigs and heaving bosoms. But it is also unusually literate. The movie is, after all, about lovers who live in a world of letters— where the ultimate commitment or betrayal is not the act of love so much as the decision to put it in writing.

Elaborate language—of a less refined variety—also provides the fuel for Talk Radio. Directed by Oliver Stone, who made Platoon and Wall Street, it stars Eric Bogosian as the motor-mouth host of a Dallas open-line show. The movie is adapted from the 1987 play Talk Radio, which Bogosian authored and starred in. And it also borrows from Stephen Singular’s nonfiction book Talked to Death: The Life and Murder of Alan Berg, which explored the 1984 murder of a Denver talk-show host by a neoNazi hit squad. Portraying a radio personality who takes pleasure in baiting the bigots who phone in, Bogosian is both amusing and mesmerizing—for a while. But well before the end, his character’s narcissism and the unrelenting sound of his ranting become unbearable. Bogosian’s one-man brilliance needs the acoustic distance of a theatre. Instead, Stone bludgeons the viewer with claustrophobic camera effects, an overwrought sound track and a tawdry romantic subplot. Of all the new movies, Talk Radio aims to be the most controversial. Oddly enough, it is the least interesting—full of sound, fury and insignificance.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON