Film

INFERNAL ODYSSEYS

Bringing it all back home for the holidays

BRIAN D. JOHNSON December 29 2003
Film

INFERNAL ODYSSEYS

Bringing it all back home for the holidays

BRIAN D. JOHNSON December 29 2003

INFERNAL ODYSSEYS

Film

Bringing it all back home for the holidays

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

WHERE IS HOME, and how will we ever find our way back? In this year’s holiday movies, that seems to be the question. Whether it’s Frodo trekking to the ends of Middle Earth in The Return of the King, or a Civil War deserter trudging across North Carolina in Cold Mountain, ’tis the season for infernal odysseys ending with the over-the-rainbow coda that there’s no place like home. In Big Fish, a small-town wanderer embarks on a mythic journey through a surreal circus of exotic characters. In Elf an overgrown pixie travels from Santa’s workshop to workaholic Manhattan on a quest to get a cuddle from his biological father. In Calendar Girls and Cheaper by the Dozen, sugar plum visions of fame and fortune drive modest folk from hamlets to big cities, and back again. In a tarted-up Peter Pan, Wendy makes it home from Neverland after flying off with a leering Lost Boy—who looks like he got lost on the way to bonk Brooke Shields in The Blue Lagoon. And in Something’s Gotta Give, Hollywood’s Peter Pan emeritus, Jack Nicholson, finally reaches the end of the road as a rogue, and stumbles into the arms of a nurturing Diane Keaton. The overriding message in these movies is that you can, and must, go home again—even if that’s a disastrous option, as Jennifer Connelly’s character discovers in House of Sand and Fog.

Last week, in reviewing The Return of the King, I made passing reference to Homer’s Odyssey and Dante’s Inferno. With Cold Mountain, those two archetypal sagas spring to mind once again. The movie is based on the richly imagined 1997 novel by Charles Frazier, who used The Odyssey as an armature for his story. And it’s the one film in a crowded field of pre-20th-century combat epics that portrays war as cruel tragedy rather than glorious gladiatorial sport. For British writer-director Anthony Minghella, Cold Mountain marks a return to the soul-scarred terrain of The English Patient—if only because it’s another sweeping literary saga of lovers separated by war, with a narrative that toggles between two time frames, and a wounded hero clutching a tattered book.

Although its story takes some time to get in gear, Cold Mountain is a movie of terrible beauty and grave consequence, establishing Minghella as Hollywood’s epic poeta more rigorous, less rhapsodic David Lean. And at its heart, as a Confederate deserter named Inman, Jude Law quietly delivers the year’s most artfully distilled dramatic performance. Although he spends half the movie hiding behind a heavy beard, and doesn’t have much dialogue, he reminds us that the power of great screen-acting comes down to an intangible truth behind the eyes.

Rather than simply transposing the novel, Minghella transforms it, excising scenes and inventing new ones, as he did with The English Patient. The book opens with the hero recuperating in a battleffont hospital—which might have looked too much like The American Patient onscreen. Instead Minghella opens the movie with a horrific battle scene drawn from the history books. After tunnelling under Confederate lines and detonating a massive charge of underground explosives, Union troops swarm into the resulting sinkhole, only to become targets in a lethal trap of their own making. With the horrific lyricism of a contemporary Goya, Minghella depicts the fray as a barbaric mosh pit of blurred bodies, a liquid grave of mud and blood and meat.

This is the hell that Inman flees as he makes his way back home to Ada (Nicole Kidman), a sweetheart he’s barely met: years earlier, they exchanged just one passionate kiss before he went marching off to war. On the road, he encounters an picaresque array of characters, including a reverend (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who has knocked up a slave girl, a whoring gang of hillbilly sirens, a widowed mother who wants him to warm her bed (Natalie Portman), and a goat-tending crone who treats his wounds (Eileen Atkins).

Meanwhile, back on the farm, Ada, an elegant Charleston belle, struggles to survive with Ruby (Renée Zellweger), a rugged drifter who shows up on her doorstep and proves to be a virtuoso Jill-of-all-trades. Whether wringing a rooster’s neck or biting off rude lines of dialogue, Zellweger attacks her tomboy role with deadpan bravado, her features almost disappearing behind a ferocious squint and a scolding pout. As for Kidman, her movie-star poise strikes the movie’s only false note. Especially when her character is supposed to be roughing it on the farm, I kept being distracted by her hair and makeup, wondering where she’d find such fine eyeshadow in Appalachia.

On balance, however, Minghella’s poetic gaze is impervious to Hollywood cliché. Though shooting in Romania with British and Australian leads, he conjures the American South with startling fidelity, especially through the music. Actor-fiddler Brendan Gleeson and singer Jack White of the White Stripes ring true as itinerant musicians, playing tender counterpoint to the cruelty of war, which is personified by a sociopath posse of Confederate thugs led by Ray Winstone. Whether America will sit still for an anti-war movie from foreigners is another matter. When Ada writes to Inman and begs him to stop fighting, she refers to “every fool sent off to fight with a flag and a lie.” And there’s no doubt that Minghella’s is referring to fresher conflicts than the Civil War.

House of Sand and Fog is the other politically inflected tragedy opening over the holidays—on Boxing Day, to be precise. If you’re looking for an antidote to all that cosy Christmas cheer, and are dying to escape into a fantasy of harrowing despair, this could be just the ticket. Based on the 1999 bestseller by Andre Dubus III, the story concerns Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), a careless victim of a bureaucratic error who’s evicted from her family home, a bungalow off the coast of northern California. The house is then promptly auctioned off at a fraction of its value. The buyer is a hard-working Iranian immigrant (Ben Kingsley)—a former colonel under the Shah’s regime—who moves in with his family but intends to flip the property. As Kathy and the colonel become locked in a bitter feud, she finds an ally, and suitor, in a shifty deputy sheriff (Ron Eldard) who reignites her drinking problem.

Without giving away any more, let’s just say that the plot acquires the momentum of a train wreck. The moral lines are drawn too starkly in the sand—sloppy California girl versus steely Iranian patriarch. But Connelly and Kingsley both rise above the script with complex performances. The film marks the feature debut of writer-director Vadim Perelman, 40, a Soviet-born refugee who settled in Toronto after a grim childhood. Now based in Los Angeles, where he’s forged a career making TV commercials, he has created a taut melodrama that pulls no punches as it eviscerates the American Dream.

Mona Lisa Smile tries to subvert another domestic dream, the ambition of ’50s American college girls to become successful housewives. Julia Roberts stars as Katherine, a beleaguered art history professor at allfemale Wellesley College in 1953. Katherine is a feminist voice in the crinoline wilderness, struggling to teach her students to become freethinkers, just like her. Directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral), this earnest drama has a sharp young cast—Julia Stiles as the protege, Kirsten Dunst as the snob, Maggie Gyllenhaal as the slut. But Roberts is miscast, lost in a role that doesn’t allow her to dazzle, and the story is strangely flat. You have to wonder why anyone felt compelled to make a distaff Dead Poets Society with the tired message that women should have minds of their own.

Calendar Girls offers a more contemporary, and comic, tale of female empowerment. Based on a true story, it’s about members of the Rylstone Women’s Institute in a north Yorkshire village who decide to strip for charity. WI groups are known for plum jams and baking cakes, but after a great deal of trepidation a dozen of the women agree to pose in the nude for a calendar (with the naughty bits strategically covered up). All they want to do is buy a couch for the waiting room of the local hospital, but they create a media frenzy that spreads all the way to America.

Leading a phalanx of fiftysomething English actresses, a saucy Helen Mirren plays Chris, who spearheads the campaign, and a soulful Julie Walters plays Annie, who loses her husband to leukemia in the underfunded hospital. With a script that aims for obvious laughs, this female Full Monty is slow to take off. The cute notion of middle-aged women posing discreetly in the nude is not that shocking, or that funny. Things only get interesting when egos start to clash. As the calendar girls collide with an onslaught of glamour and hype, the film turns into a frisky fish-out-of-water comedy—middleaged dames dress up and do Leno. And, like a work of post-modern needlepoint, the film we’re watching becomes the ultimate product of the phenomenon it describes.

Something’s Gotta Give is another movie that finds the idea of middle-aged nudity nothing short of hilarious. It has one of those generic Hollywood titles that could be used for just about anything, not unlike the title of Jack Nicholson’s previous romantic comedy, As Good As it Gets (1997). After a dignified detour to play a lost accountant in last year’s About Schmidt, Jack is up to his old tricks in a triple-cream confection for aging boomers. Cast as a flamboyant Lothario addicted to romances with much younger women, he plays himself more transparently than ever before. And in Diane Keaton, he’s found a game sparring partner.

Harry (Nicholson), a big-time record executive, considers any woman over 30 to be stale-dated. While gambolling with the coltish Marin (Amanda Peet) at her mother’s beach house in the Hamptons, he suffers a heart attack. Marin’s divorced mother, a wildly successful playwright named Erica (Keaton), somehow agrees to nurse him back to health. And against their better judgment, Harry and Erica fall in love, even though Erica is being courted by Harry’s handsome young doctor, who’s a perfect gentleman and a huge fan of her work. (But with a bland Keanu Reeves cast in the role, there’s some suggestion that he lacks balls.)

THE director depicts the fray as a mosh pit of blurred bodies, a liquid grave of mud and blood and flesh

The script is larded with sight gags—from Harry’s bare butt hanging out of a hospital gown to the childish shrieks that erupt when he catches a glimpse of Erica in the nude. There are tender moments amid the shtick. And there’s some pleasure in watching the abrasive chemistry between Nicholson and Keaton, two actors who can enrich the lightest flirtation with layers of innuendo. In the end, what’s most middle-aged about Something’s Gotta Give is the flab of its two-hour duration. And Nancy Meyers, the movie’s writer-director-producer is perhaps overempowered; she doesn’t know when to stop. She’s also created a rather perverse feminist romance, with a heroine who weans a man off younger women by mothering him.

No holiday movie season would be complete without sweet family fables. This year there’s a slew of them—mostly father-son stories—and the most ambitious is Tim Burton’s Big Fish. It consists of fantasy flashbacks framed by a realistic scenario of a skeptical son (Billy Crudup) reconciling with an ailing father, a self-mythologizing blowhard named Edward Bloom (Albert Finney). As dad spins tall tales of his adventures, Ewan McGregor plays Edward as a young man, a world traveller whose life is carnival of weird encounters: werewolves, conjoined Korean crooners, a giant, an oracular witch—and a huge, uncatchable fish. The film unfolds like an edgier Forrest Gump, an entertaining sideshow of surreal whimsy. But although it’s about emotion, I couldn’t get past its impenetrable cleverness: Big Fish left me cold.

Elfis a stupider but more affecting fatherson fable, the kind of surefire Hollywood fare that makes you laugh, and cry, while feeling like an idiot. Buddy (Will Ferrell), a human adopted by Santa’s elves, travels from the North Pole to Manhattan in search of his father (James Caan), a Scrooge-like publisher of children’s books. Ferrell plays it wonderfully straight as a childlike galoot blundering through an adult world, like Tom Hanks in Big. Elf has a split-level humour that plays to both adults and children. But stay away from Peter Pan, a garish remake with a predatory Pan and a bitchy Tink who acts like she’s on angel dust, not fairy dust. Then there’s Bad Santa, one of the ugliest, most witless movies I’ve seen in ages—even though it stars Billy Bob Thornton and was directed by Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World).

But then, you might ask what Steve Martin is doing squandering his talents in Cheaper by the Dozen. In this slapstick farce, he plays a football coach with 12 squabbling children and a wife (Bonnie Hunt) who’s a budding author. When he lands his dream job on a major campus, and his wife is whisked off to New York to promote her book, he becomes the cartoon version of the overwhelmed working dad. This is the kind of movie kids will love and adults will tolerate, a brawling but good-natured physical comedy. Personally, I’d rather read Steve Martin writing humour in The New Yorker than see him swing from a chandelier. But everyone’s got to make a living, especially this time of year, liïl