Films

Gutterballs, strikes

Brian D. Johnson March 16 1998
Films

Gutterballs, strikes

Brian D. Johnson March 16 1998

Gutterballs, strikes

Films

Midway between the blockbuster assaults of summer and Christmas, this is a fallow season for Hollywood movies. Yet each week, half a dozen films are dumped onto the market, from obscure foreign fare to middleweight contenders from the major studios. And faced with all these minor titles, the moviegoer looks to brand names for guidance. But brand names, as it turns out, cannot always be trusted.

Take The Man in the Iron Mask. Here is a picture with a wildly mongrel pedigree, a swashbuckling romp based on the classic novel by Alexandre Dumas and starring Titanic heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio plus a slew of name thespians. DiCaprio plays the evil Louis XIV and his imprisoned twin brother—twice the Leonardo, twice the DiCaprio! But the idea of this young American with a mall-rat accent playing a French king is ludicrous. And as aging musketeers, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Gérard Depardieu and Gabriel Byrne—each sporting a different accent—all look faintly embarrassed, like serious actors

stuck performing at a kids’ birthday party. Children, at least, may get a kick out of The Man in the Iron Mask. But it is hard to imagine who might find merit in Hush—aside from adults bored enough to take perverse delight in a really bad movie about a pregnant woman being tortured by a jealous mother-in-law. Once again, the brand names seem trustworthy: Jessica Lange plays the deranged matriarch, Gwyneth Paltrow the

pregnant bride. Both are fine actors, but they are stuck in a campy thriller that plays like a Lamaze-class remake of Mommie Dearest.

Amid such Hollywood dreck, one would expect that the Coen brothers, the fiercely independent duo who created last year’s hit Fargo, could be counted on to provide some relief.

The Big Lebowski, the latest black comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen, does have some brilliant moments. But it is not up to the usual Coen standards. Set in the tacky wilds of Los Angeles, it stars Jeff Bridges as “the Dude,” an unemployed stoner who inhabits a rundown bungalow in Venice Beach and spends his time bowling with his buddies. Through a fluke of mistaken identity, the Dude gets mixed up in an embezzlement scheme involving a tycoon, his kidnapped wife and some weird thugs. The film is crammed with showy,

oddball performances—John Turturro as a freaky bowler in a lavender jumpsuit, Julianne Moore as an avant-garde painter, Peter Stormare {Fargo s psychopath) as a German nihilist with a vicious marmot. Meanwhile, with Bridges making a sublime pothead, the movie plays as a thinking man’s Cheech and Chong. But the Coens let the film coast along on visual flash, even indulging in a surreal Busby Berkeley dance sequence. And at the bottom of it all is a tedious buddy movie, with John Goodman quickly wearing thin as a moronic Vietnam veteran who serves as the Dude’s sidekick. What made Fargo work, aside from the regional kitsch, was a solid story and believable characters worth caring about. The Big Lebowski has neither.

As it turns out, the best new movies this season are no-name and non-American. La Promesse (The Promise) is a superb French-language drama written and directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgian brothers whose stark realism is light-years from the compound irony of the Coen brothers. Recently voted best foreign film by the Los Angeles Society of Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics, La Promesse is about a streetwise, 15-year-old boy named Igor Qérémie Renier) whose scumbag father exploits illegal immigrants as a slum landlord in one of Belgium’s industrial suburbs. After watching his father cover up the death of an African laborer, Igor betrays him by secretly helping out the man’s wife, who remains unaware of her husband’s fate.

Powered by rivetting performances and fluid, hand-held camera work, La Promesse is a coming-of-age film with an emotional appeal that is honest and unswerving. Exploring issues of illegal immigration and father-son abuse without ever seeming to, it leaves an indelible impression. Coincidentally, there is another new French-language movie devoted to illegal immigrants: Stowaways, a grim drama about starving refugees smuggled in a container on a ship sailing to Canada. Co-directed by Montreal’s Denis Chouinard and Geneva’s Nicolas Wadimoff, it is a harrowing saga, but lacks the subtlety and depth of La Promesse.

On the lighter side, Love and Death on Long Island, a Canada-Britain co-production, offers an antidote to Hollywood comedy. Charming, original and supremely witty, it stars John Hurt as Giles, an eminent English intellectual who falls madly in love with an American actor named Ronnie (Canada’s Jason Priestley) after stumbling into the wrong theatre and seeing him in a teen flick called Hotpants College II. The obsession eventually drives Giles to travel to Long Island, where he stalks his idol and conspires to meet him.

Hurt is a droll delight as the Oxbridge man of letters naïvely discovering America. And Priestley, playing a naïf of a different sort, is deliciously typecast as a deadpan hunk. With a wink to Death in Venice, Love and Death on Long Island covers a lot of ground—fandom, mad love, age versus youth, Europe versus America—without showing any strain. British writer-director Richard Kwietniowski adroitly bridges the gulf between high art and pop culture, demonstrating that the best brands are often names we have never heard of.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON