FILMS

A holiday quartet

Four movies range from mystery to romance

Brian D. Johnson January 4 1993
FILMS

A holiday quartet

Four movies range from mystery to romance

Brian D. Johnson January 4 1993

A holiday quartet

FILMS

Four movies range from mystery to romance

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

It is an unusual kind of detective thriller, a suspense drama about love, obsession and a ruthless killer. But there is no sex, no violence—and no crime. Lorenzo’s Oil is a medical mystery, and the killer in question is a rare disease known as Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD). Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon act out the reallife drama of Augusto and Michaela Odone, two Maryland parents who learned in 1984 that their five-yearold son, Lorenzo (Zack O’Malley Greenburg), had ALD, a then-incurable brain disease. Doctors gave their son about two years to live.

Unfazed by official skepticism, the Odones took medical science into their own hands and embarked on an extraordinary quest for a cure. Harrowing, enthralling and uplifting, Lorenzo’s Oil is not only the best of the new movies released in the last two weeks of 1992—it is one of the best of the year.

LORENZO’S OIL Directed by George Miller

The Odones crack the mystery of their son’s disease through sheer tenacity. Augusto is an Italianborn economist with the World Bank; Michaela is an Irish-American linguist.

Neither has any scientific training, but they bury themselves in medical research and become selftaught experts in ALD. It is a hereditary disease, passed only from mothers to sons. Unchecked, the disease leads to nervous malfunctions, paralysis and eventually death. To the amazement of the medical establishment, the Odones finally discover a byproduct of common oils that inhibits the progress of ALD.

Nolte and Sarandon both act with conviction. Nolte’s Italian accent takes some getting used to, but there is an endearing quality to his portrayal of Augusto’s investigative zeal. As Michaela, Sarandon conveys the short-fused rage of a mother who cannot accept her son’s

death sentence. And as their benign but cautious doctor, Peter Ustinov personifies the blinkered wisdom of the medical profession.

Australian director and co-writer George Miller, best known for his Mad Max action movies, is himself a trained physician. He injects the movie with a fascinating wealth of scientific detail—clues that create an intrigue

as engrossing as any murder mystery. Miller finds humor and horror in medical politics. And, with surgical resolve, he cuts to the emotional quick: the drama is heartrending. But although Lorenzo ’s Oil is a triple-hankie movie, it is not a downer, and the tears are good to the last drop.

HOFFA

Directed by Danny DeVito

The saga of James R. Hoffa certainly has the ingredients of a Hollywood epic. He started out

as a working-class warrior in the 1930s, battling strikebreakers and police to win better wages and working conditions for truckers. He scrapped his way to the top of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and used brute force to make it the largest, and most persuasive, union in North America. He also sparred with the Kennedys and went to jail for doing business with the Mafia. After his release, he mysteriously disappeared from a restaurant parking lot in 1975, never to be seen again. With Jack Nicholson as the star and playwright David Mamet writing the script, Hoffa sounds unbeatable. But the movie is a major disappointment.

Danny DeVito co-stars with Nicholson as the fictional Bobby Ciaro, a trucker who becomes Hoffa’s adoring lieutenant. Both on-screen and off, DeVito’s attitude to Hoffa is abject heroworship. His direction is bombastic, to say the least. And beneath the flash and trash of Mamet’s scalding dialogue, the script is a garbled mess. Hoffa’s wife, Josephine (Natalija Nogulich), is clumsily dropped into the action about halfway through, then just stands around for the rest of the movie.

The best thing about Hoffa is Nicholson. Instead of offering another Satanic self-parody, he creates a credible character. But he is trapped in a dull, empty tragedy that makes a fetish of male working-class grit, the industrial-strength variety. And the movie makes an unconvincing case for Hoffa’s heroism.

SCENT OF A WOMAN Directed by Martin Brest

AÍ Pacino deserves it—the opportunity to indulge himself with a grandstanding role as a funny, irascible, bullying, oversexed crank. Jack Nicholson has been doing it for years. Now, Pall cino, who has proved his g brilliance on-screen in one ^ crisply contained perform§ anee after another, finally gets his chance to pull out all the stops. In Scent of a

Woman, he plays a blind

man, a retired lieutenant-colonel named Frank who has delusions of grandeur and bears a massive grudge against the world. The movie is a lazy confection—long and slow and soft in the middle. But Pacino’s performance is irresistible.

Frank is an embittered, self-destructive cynic with a vicious sense of humor. He worships women, or at least the ideaoi women, and lives off his past glories as a presidential aide. Charlie (Chris O’Donnell), an earnest prepschool student, is hired to take care of him for

Thanksgiving. But Frank whisks him off to New York City for a luxury weekend at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. While Charlie frets about his precarious future as a scholarship student, Frank tries to carry out a two-step program of hedonism and suicide.

The drama comes down to a father-son exercise in mutual redemption. The innocent and the cynic join in the romantic defence of what Frank calls “the long grey line of American manhood.” The story is preposterous, but buoyed up by a series of broadly entertaining scenes—including a showstopper in which Frank, guided by radar love, demonstrates his skill at the tango. In Pacino’s considerable shadow, O’Donnell acts

of Moonstruck and the Christmas of 1987. Used People seems like a used movie, a hand-medown quilt of stereotypes. But its derivative charm still works, offering the kind of crowdkindling warmth that could make it the sleeper hit of this holiday season.

MacLaine portrays Pearl, a Jewish mother whose husband dies in 1969 after 37 years of marriage. At the funeral, she meets an Old World Italian named Joe (Marcello Mastroianni), an old friend of her husband. Joe offers his condolences, then mortifies the mourners by asking the widow out for coffee. As Pearl’s mother, Frieda (Jessica Tandy), puts it, “She got picked up at her own husband’s funeral.” The movie unfolds as a slow-fused

with striking sensitivity. Pacino, meanwhile, devours his role with such theatrical relish that Scent of a Woman remains tolerable, even at its most cloying moments.

USED PEOPLE Directed by Beeban Kidron

It is fitting that a movie with Used People for a title, and the psychically inclined Shirley MacLaine for a star, should seem strangely familiar. It must have been another movie (or two) in a past life. Used People is a whimsical comedydrama about second chances, with a largely female cast that includes Kathy Bates and Jessica Tandy—which sounds a lot like Fried Green Tomatoes, the sleeper hit of last December’s holiday season. Set in New York City, but filmed mostly in Toronto, Used People is a comic fable with sibling feuds, family dinners and an Italian-American accent, a romance under a Manhattan sky where the moon hits your eye like an extra-large pizza pie—shades

courtship. While Joe woos Pearl with poetry and Italian cooking, she tries to resist.

Meanwhile, conflicts involving her two rival daughters come to a boil. As Bibby, Kathy Bates plays yet another frumpy woman with low self-esteem. Marcia Gay Harden portrays Norma, the pretty one. Unhinged by personal tragedy, she neglects her 12-year-old son, Swee’ Pea (Matthew Brandon), and affects lunatic impersonations of celebrities ranging from Jackie Kennedy to Anne Bancroft.

Directing her first Hollywood movie, British film-maker Beeban Kidron draws spirited performances from her stars. Finally playing a character who is not an eccentric, MacLaine defies a contrived script with a solid, credible performance. Used People takes forever to get off the ground, then follows a predictable course. But in the end, like the vintage accordion that Joe teaches Swee’ Pea to play, it squeezes some rich sentiments out of thin air.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON