Holiday Escapades

Tales of self-absorbed men enjoying mid-life epiphanies dominate this season’s fare

Brian D. Johnson December 25 2000

Holiday Escapades

Tales of self-absorbed men enjoying mid-life epiphanies dominate this season’s fare

Brian D. Johnson December 25 2000

With the holiday season comes the year-end bounty of blockbusters. The biggest, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and the best, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, have already been reviewed in these pages. The rest of the Christmas list is a mix of “prestige”pictures and formula fare—dominated by tales of self-absorbed men enjoying mid-life epiphanies. A sampling:

Cast Away is the big screen’s answer to the adventure vacation. And even if being stuck on a desert island with Tom Hanks is your idea of purgatory, it’s a much better movie than might be expected. Yes, it sounds like a one-man episode of Survivor—see Tom talk to himself, spear fish and shed his flab! But despite some flaws, Cast Away is a gripping spectacle, full of visceral suspense and visual thrills.

Reunited with Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis, Hanks plays Chuck, a FedEx systems engineer who spends his workaholic life jetting around the globe, enforcing deadlines. On Christmas, he is on the verge of proposing to his girlfriend (Helen Hunt), when duty calls him away. The FedEx plane crash, which ditches Chuck in the South Seas during a perfect storm, takes the art of the armchair air disaster to a new level— this is one movie they won’t be showing on Air Canada.

But even after the movie settles into Robinson Crusoe mode, the physical drama is still engrossing—whether it involves Hanks trying to open a coconut, start a fire or treat himself with primitive dentistry. For over an hour of the film, his only companion is a volleyball, washed up in a FedEx package, which he paints with a happy face and names Wilson. FedEx, by the way, is a virtual character in the film, branded right into the script with a prominence unprecedented in Hollywood product placement.

Although it comes from one of Hollywood’s most conventional directors, Cast Away is an unusual film, and not just because the shoot was broken up by a one-year hiatus while Hanks slimmed down. Yes, Zemeckis still hits every sentiment on the nose—using an old pocket watch as his pet symbol, like Gump's box of chocolates. And his omniscient camera makes a fetish of dramatic irony, letting the audience glimpse every dire development just ahead of the hero. But in filming a lone actor battered by sea and sky, Zemeckis tempers grandeur with uncharacteristic sensitivity. Though we should be tired of Hanks playing Everyman by now, the actor summons a raw conviction he’s never shown before. Later, when his castaway turns back into Tom Hanks— looking like he just stepped out of a spa—the movie flounders, struggling to deliver a denouement that doesn’t feel FedExed by Hollywood. But it’s a nifty package just the same.

The Family Man is about a castaway of a different colour, a financier who falls out of the fast lane and gets marooned in the middle class. With his usual bullet-head intensity, Nicolas Cage plays Jack, a Wall Street Scrooge finessing a corporate takeover on Christmas Eve. As he falls asleep in his Manhattan penthouse, a dream transports him to New Jersey, where he’s married to Kate (Téa Leoni), the college sweetheart he left 13 years ago. Stripped of his Ferrari, his doorman and his job, this master of the universe finds himself in suburban hell—changing diapers, selling tires and bowling badly. But before you can say It’s a Wonderful Life, he discovers his inner Jimmy Stewart, and comes to appreciate the importance of cute kids and a good woman with great breasts.

While extolling family values, The Family Man is really about having the perfect wife: a good-natured babe who never complains, who strips for her hubby at the foot of the bed before servicing him, and who loves him even when he acts like a moron. Slickly directed by Brett Ratner (Rush Hour)—with cynicism disguised as sentiment—this vile exercise in narcissism patronizes middle-class hardship, then lets our slumming hero escape it. Of course, he’s willing to give up wealth for love of family, but he doesn’t have to. He gets to have the perfect wife and the perfect life, because this is a Christmas movie for the man who has everything.

What Women Want takes a similar tack. Once again a playboy bachelor learns, through a Capraesque twist of fate, to love the little people and become a sensitive, caring soul. This time he’s an advertising executive. Hollywood can identify with advertising, which is full of overpaid people perfecting the art of the pitch. And you can imagine a screenwriter pitching this script with one line: Mel Gibson waxes his legs.

For Gibson, What Women Want is a make-over movie, an attempt to prove he can be more than an action star. Throwing himself into romantic comedy with alarming gusto, he plays Nick, a macho ad executive who worships Sinatra and treats women as big game. Nick’s world comes tumbling down when a new creative director (Helen Hunt, again) challenges him to understand female consumers. In desperation, he spends a drunken night trying out feminine products—pantyhose, nail polish, hot wax—then nearly electrocutes himself with a hair dryer, thus acquiring a magical ability to read women's minds.

This is a very busy movie. Poor Mel can’t decide if he wants to be Woody Allen, Tom Hanks or Gene Kelly. And while he jumps through hoops, his female co-stars make the most of minor opportunities. Hunt soldiers through her no-win role as a career woman turned lovelorn dupe. Marisa Tomei merrily hijacks scenes as a “ditzy coffee-shop girl,” and as Nick’s teenage daughter, Ashley Johnson sparks with insolent candour.

What Women Want is one of those bad movies that goes so wrong it’s luridly fascinating. Someone should have stopped Gibson from embarrassing himself. Although the director is a woman—Nancy Meyers, who remade The Parent Trap—this retro battle-of-the-sexes romp is never a fair fight. What Men Want would be a more fitting title.

Proof of Life stars another Australian hunk who is giving Gibson a run for his money as an action heartthrob. After redefining chivalry in Gladiator, Russell Crowe now plays a contemporary gladiator in the kidnap-and-ransom game, a mercenary who offers to rescue a woman's husband from Latin American insurgents free of charge. There are at least three movies going on here—action flick, political intrigue and romance—but they never coalesce. The picture opens like a James Bond picture, with a firefight in Chechnya, and ends with a pitched battle in the Andes. Sandwiched between them is the story of an American engineer (David Morse) who is kidnapped by drug-dealing guerrillas in a fictional Latin American country. He is uninsured, but the insurance company’s hardball negotiator (Crowe) takes a shine to the man’s wife (Meg Ryan), and agrees to help extract him. 

Anyone looking for proof of chemistry between Crowe and Ryan—who steamed up the tabloids with their off-screen affair—will be disappointed. Their characters repress their lust for each other so thoroughly that the romance is a non-event. Although the kidnapped husband is a jerk, and not worth rescuing, adultery was deemed de trop for the malls of America. Apparently, test audiences vetoed a less prudish cut of the film. Pity.

The movie contains some detailed insight into the kidnap business. Shot on location in scenic Ecuador by director Taylor Hackford (Devil’s Advocate), it is also eminently watchable, especially when guns are involved. But with all the Latinos portrayed as boobs, maniacs or whimpering victims, Proof of Life’s bid for authenticity is continually undermined.

Traffic has its own share of drug-dealing Hispanic hoodlums, but they are far more convincing. In a season of confection and contrivance, Traffic’s gritty realism cuts the eggnog haze like a tequila shooter. Drug movies—most recently, Requiem for a Dream—have evolved into a kind of high porn, a speedball mix of vicarious thrills and moral judgments. But Traffic is not a typical drug movie. Provocative without taking sides, it illuminates the drug culture from all angles—producers, consumers, enforcers— with a narrative that sprawls across Mexico and the United States.

A Scotch-swilling Michael Douglas maintains a fragile hypocrisy as America’s new antidrug czar, whose teenage daughter is experimenting with crack. There are two pairs of partner cops: a heroically suave Benicio Del Toro and a jumpy Jacob Vargas play tag with Mexican drug lords, while Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman are DEA cowboys, comically killing time on stakeouts in San Diego. Throw in Catherine Zeta-Jones as the unwitting wife of a drug baron (Steven Bauer) and Dennis Quaid as his shady lawyer and there is a whole spectrum of characters splitting the difference between good and evil. 

Cutting irony with compassion, and a glimmer of redemption, director Steven Soderbergh has made an antiwar movie about the drug war—depicting it as a conflict that, like Vietnam, penetrates the soul of America and cannot be won by military means. While not as flashy as Tarantino, Soderbergh is emerging as the most important American director of his generation, an oblique stylist who subverts the language of film while drawing exceptionally natural performances from his actors. Since serving as a poster boy for indie success with Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), he has been jump-cutting in and out of the mainstream, conquering Hollywood on his own terms. With Out of Sight (1998), he mixed George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in a cool Elmore Leonard cocktail. Pioneering screwball investigative comedy, he cast Julia Roberts as a Barbie firebrand in Erin Brockovich. And with Traffic, his most ambitious work, Soderbergh films documentary-style with hand-held cameras, acting as his own cinematographer. Colour-coding each location, he puts Douglas in a world of cold blue power, and shoots Mexico through amber filters, distressing the footage until it looks like the desert itself. And the narrative threads intertwine like frayed nerves.

Finding Forrester comes from another innovator who has found a Hollywood niche, Gus Van Sant. It’s about a brash teenage writing prodigy from the Bronx who finds a mentor in a reclusive novelist. And it’s highly reminiscent of Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting (1997)—about mentoring a brash teenage physics prodigy. Forrester (Sean Connery) is a cranky J. D. Salinger type who has spent four decades in seclusion after writing a Pulitzer Prizewinning novel. Jamal (Rob Brown) is a black basketball genius with an untapped gift for writing. As they strike up a cagey relationship, Jamal ends up on a collision course with his villainous English teacher (F. Murray Abraham). Although the script takes a predictable arc, the real-life mentor-protégé dynamic between the movie’s two stars is compelling. Brown, a 16-year-old who has never acted before, shows remarkable talent. And Connery, comfortably playing his age, has never been more intriguing.

O Brother Where Art Thou offers an oasis of comic irony for those seeking relief from the season’s triumph-of-the-human-spirit dramas. Made by the Coen brothers (Fargo), and loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, it’s part hillbilly musical, part deadpan farce. A dim-bulb trio of convicts go on the run after bolting from a Mississippi chain gang. George Clooney is well cast as Ulysses, a silver-tongued fool who leads the other two stooges (John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) on a slapstick escapade through the Deep South— from robbing a bank to recording a hit bluegrass song.

Like all the Coens’ films, O Brother is artfully stylized and riddled with allusions. But their best work, notably Fargo, is rooted in some kind of emotional reality. Here, the Coens indulge their silly streak—and a tendency to patronize their characters right out of existence. Despite infectious music and some brisk wit, O Brother feels stifled by caricature.

State and Main is even more cynical. Written and directed by master ironist David Mamet, it’s a showbiz satire about a big movie production that invades a quaint Vermont town. Mamet has assembled a terrific cast—including William H. Macy as a high-handed Hollywood director, Alec Baldwin as a movie star whose “hobby” is underage girls, Sarah Jessica Parker as an actress fighting not to show her breasts, Philip Seymour Hoffman as a besieged screenwriter, and Rebecca Pidgeon as a local sweetheart who becomes his script doctor.

But Mamet’s own script is the real star of State and Main, with crisp dialogue that rattles off one-liners like a string of firecrackers. Only Hoffman’s character—earnestly struggling to write the script within the script—seems a fully fleshed character. The others defer to parody with flat line-readings. The result is a thin, amusing send-up that unfolds like a board game, darting from joke to joke. It’s as if Mamet were writing with one hand tied behind his back, casually eviscerating Hollywood pretension. But Mamet-lite is still wittier than much of what passes for comedy in Hollywood.

Chocolat, which takes place in a quaint French village, is a sweet, pretty confection, with storybook characters that twirl like figurines under the immaculate direction of Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules). In the tradition of Babette's Feast and Like Water for Chocolate, it’s about a culinary showdown between rectitude and pleasure, a fairy tale pitting the Roman Catholic Church against the cocoa bean. Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her young daughter, Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), are travellers who swoop into a French hamlet in red-riding-hood capes and open a fancy chocolaterie. Based on magical recipes of Mayan heritage, Vianne’s chocolate enchants the villagers, awakening impulses of lust and romance. Meanwhile, the town’s righteous bigwig (Alfred Molina) plots with a priest to shut her down.

Why anyone in France, where food is a religion, would consider chocolate seditious in 1959 is beyond comprehension. But a glaze of “magic realism” can mask all manner of implausibility. So, in the spirit of the Caramilk miracle, we suspend disbelief to indulge in the charms of chocolate, Binoche and Johnny Depp. Depp plays an Irish river rat who moors his boat in the village, a gentle seducer who sells jewelry and plays Delta blues—the most clean-cut vagabond ever to scandalize a small town. This is an enjoyable movie of momentary delights, from the lacquer swirl of melted cocoa to the luminous Binoche. Judi Dench adds a bittersweet touch of class, Lena Olin a slice of marzipan madness. But tasting more of artifice than magic, Chocolat—like much of the holiday fare—never quite lives up to the lovely wrapping. **