Holy mess would be more like it. Jane (The Piano) Campions latest is a wild and wacky ride, careening from cartoon ish satire to high romance to surrealism. Yet Holy Smoke is a movie to be reckoned with. It is the tale of Ruth (Kate Winslet), a young Australian who falls under the spell of a guru while backpacking in India. Her alarmed parents decide to lure their “golden girl” back to Australia on false pretences—Dads mortal illness. They enlist the pricey services of American cult déprogrammer P J. Waters (Harvey Keitel), a macho clown who arrives in a black shirt, pressed jeans and cowboy boots, all set to rescue the helpless damsel from the nefarious holy man.
Predictably, the déprogrammer gets deprogrammed. Ruth may be in her flake phase, but she is strong and cunning. And P. J., who seems invincible at the beginning of the antiguru therapy, soon submits to her ferocious spirit—and her forceful sexuality.
It’s all rather hard to believe. How could P J., veteran of 189 deprogrammings, allow himself to succumb to feminine wiles? Make that feminist wiles, for Ruth is no Barbie doll—unlike her sister-in-law (Sophie Lee), who initially turns P.J.’s head. Also hackneyed, if at times funny, is Campions send-up of middle-class Australians. Ruth’s father (Tim Robertson) is a nasty patriarch who has sired a child by his secretary. Her ineffectual mother (Julie Hamilton) thinks “the healing power
of crystals” constitutes a spiritual life.
But Ruth’s story gets under the skin, largely because of Winslet and Keitel. The two leads ultimately transcend the movie’s bewildering shifts in tone and its half-baked script, by the director and her sister Anna, to create a memorable study of sexual dynamics. Much like Jane Campion’s vastly superior Piano, in
which Keitel also played an unlikely object of desire, Holy Smoke explores the passion-igniting power of feminism— for the man as well as the woman. But the filmmakers also want to send up Marlboro Man-hood, so Ruth ultimately convinces PJ. to wear her lipstick and red party dress. Thus attired, he ends up chasing her across the desert. Initially, the effect is farcical, but Keitel gives his character an aching human dimension as he literally bites the dust.
Winslet, meanwhile, is magnificent. Her Ruth is a rich character—confused, idealistic and very much alive. Holy Smoke may be a failure, but thanks to Winslet and Keitel, it is a divine one.
Wonder Boys Directed by Curtis Hanson
Some good novels should be allowed to quietly live out their days on bookshelves and bedside tables. Irresistible as they might be to read, they just don’t lend themselves to big-screen magnification. Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys is such a book. The wryly funny 1995 novel about a failed author and creative writing teacher seduces not with narrative but with the narrator’s smart, self-mocking voice. But jokes about tenure just don’t cut it at the movies—at least, not when they’re delivered by megawatt movie star and recovering sex addict Michael Douglas.
Douglas plays the narrator and central character of Chabon’s story, Grady Tripp. He is a former “wonder boy” of letters and a champion pothead who has failed to deliver on the promise of his last book. When the movie opens, his third wife has just left him, his married girlfriend—also the chancellor of the college where he teaches—is pregnant, and his current opus is 2,600 pages long but nowhere near finished. But Michael Douglas as a member of the literati? Sure, and Sharon Stone would make a great Virginia Woolf.
Not that this adaptation is entirely without merit. Robert Downey Jr. is priceless as Grady’s dissolute editor, and Tobey Maguire is memorable as a tortured student. Director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) is faithful to the droll tone of Chabon’s tale. And Douglas, playing low-key, tries to convey the wistfulness that made Grady so endearing in the novel. Melancholy, however, is not part of the jawclenching Douglas’s acting arsenal. Nor, for that matter, is the ability to look convincing while pounding away at a typewriter.
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