THE BACK PAGES

Sex, guilt and English schoolboys

BRIAN D. JOHNSON February 26 2007
THE BACK PAGES

Sex, guilt and English schoolboys

BRIAN D. JOHNSON February 26 2007

Sex, guilt and English schoolboys

film

Are Jude Law and Hugh Grant true leading men, or do they just want a good spanking?

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Who knows where it started. Maybe it goes back to the androgynous mischief of all those Brit rock stars who set the gold standard for male sexuality in the ’60s. But now, even in this post-Austin Powers era, a lot of women think there’s nothing sexier, or more romantic, than an overgrown English schoolboy with an accent like warm custard, an apologetic wit, and an embarrassed smirk that suggests he’s done something so terribly naughty he deserves a good spanking. Lately, Britain has produced some hyper-masculine leading men, notably Clive Owen and Daniel Craig, but romance is ruled by sophisticated softies.

This week marks the release of two movies featuring Hollywood’s favourite English heartthrobs: Music and Lyrics, a romantic comedy with Hugh Grant, and Breaking and Entering, a drama starring Jude Law. Both these actors have, in real life, done things they’ve had to apologize for—Grant got caught with a hooker and Law got caught with his children’s nanny. And onscreen, guilt is a big part of their fallen-crumpet sex appeal.

Grant specializes in candour, Law in duplicity. But they tend to milk the same formula: the complicated Brit lover boy is paired with a less complicated woman from another class or another culture, preferably an American. Grant sparred with Julia Roberts in Notting Hill, Mandy Moore in American Dreamz, and Renée Zellweger in BridgetJones’s Diary. Now, as a washed-up ’80s pop idol in Music and Lyrics, he cozies up to a girl next door played by Drew Barrymore.

If Grant is the aging English puppy of romantic comedy, Law seems fated to play the snake in the grass. He betrayed Natalie Portman for Julia Roberts in Closer, and messed

around with Cameron Diaz in The Holiday. As an antsy London architect in Breaking and Entering, he strays from a stalled relationship with a sad Scandinavian (Robin Wright Penn affecting a faint accent), and seduces a Bosnian refugee (Juliette Binoche).

Breaking and Entering is Anthony Minghella’s first original screenplay since Truly Madly Deeply. And in the wake of his literary epics, The English Patient and Cold Mountain, this contemporary London tale marks a rather tormented homecoming. Law’s architect works for a firm that’s gentrifying the London neighbourhood of King’s Cross. After a gang burgles its upscale offices, he tracks one of the young culprits back to the home of the Bosnian refugee. But instead of fingering the boy, he steals his mother’s heart.

Stamped with Minghella’s irrepressible intellect, Breaking and Entering takes slumming to precarious new heights. Neglecting his wife and special-needs daughter, Law’s character takes a walk on the wild side with the immigrant underclass— indulging in sexual deceit and scoring some redemptive enlightenment. En route, he even takes platonic life lessons in a back alley from a droll Romanian hooker (Vera Farmiga). The film is a marvel of multi-use moral architecture, but Law’s character almost collapses under the overarching elegance of its design.

Grant is another actor whose backhanded charm conjures up a universe of repressed desire and guilt. In Music and Lyrics, he gamely tackles the role of Alex, a ludicrous has-been who belonged to a Wham-like band called PoP, famous for a hit called Pop Goes My Heart. But it’s one thing to pull off a parody of an ’80s idol. Grant, who does his own singing, also has to be credible as a musican trying to make a comeback—he’s asked to write a song for a superstar pop princess. And on that front, the actor barely squeaks by.

But where he seems most uncomfortable, oddly enough, is playing the romance opposite Barrymore. There’s zero chemistry between them. She’s terrific; in fact, she enlivens this confection with such a natural presence that, at this advanced stage in her career, it seems her talent is just beginning to blossom. And as her zaftig sister, Kristen Johnston (3rd Rock from the Sun) almost steals the movie. Grant, however, looks like he’d be happier undergoing root canal than closing in for a kiss with Barrymore. His appeal has always been built on deflective layers of self-deprecating wit. But here the wincing, halting mannerisms verge on paroxysm. And now that Grant is finally showing his age, at 46, the boyish number is wearing thin (especially during the long, gratuitous shot of him baring his hairless chest). It’s like watching a child star trying to move to adult roles. No wonder Grant wants to quit acting and write a novel. Then the real embarrassment can begin. M