Serendipity is rotten cotton candy. No, more like actual cotton dipped in rich, drippy chocolate--the confection hawked by Catch-22's greedhead Milo Minderbinder. About a quarter of the audience I saw Serendipity with (evidently a fair national sample) wolfed it down and clamored for more. Newcomer Marc Klein's script is so insidiously predictable, it won him a three-picture deal. Suits are scared; they reward reassurance, as long as they can respect its cynicism. Still, the flick is worth a look, because it's a station of the cross in the career of John Cusack, the Ninth-Greatest Actor of All Time (so says an Empire Magazine poll) and the unwitting recipient of a grassroots campaign to draft him for President (hey, stranger Presidents have happened).
Stop me if you've seen the trailer, but here's the gist: Jon (Cusack) and Sara (Kate Beckinsale) tussle over a pair of gloves at Christmas. Each has a squeeze to shop for. They shouldn't but they spark, they skate, they float beneath improbably starry skies through enchanted Manhattan, skillfully fairytale-ified by director Peter Chelsom and cinematographer Jon de Borman, who enclose the two beauties in a space like a big snow globe with swirling plastic flakes.
Cusack's droll, knowing, McCartney bedroom eyes glint with Lennon venom, and he stammers romance with convincing conviction. He's still very much that heartbreak kid Lloyd in Say Anything, hoisting the boombox to serenade his girl. Back then, young Cusack lobbied director Cameron Crowe to file his moral sweet tooth down to fangs--he wanted Lloyd, a kickboxing fanatic, to assault and batter the girl's oppressive dad. "Yeah, I can see that," said Crowe sweetly, "but this is the movie where he doesn't throw the dad up against the fence." Crowe and Cusack likened themselves to Lennon and McCartney, temperaments clashing in harmony.
Cusack, a born director, an actor in training since 8, soaked up the lesson: Now he's sweetness and blight in one smart package. He can lend heft to featherweight lines, pull moments out of thin air, even defuse Hollywood bombs. Like the hunky sapper in The English Patient, Cusack is cool.
Beckinsale, a call-all-your-friends find in Cold Comfort Farm, remains too chipper and remote--she's still got the Oxford chill in her bones. Too bad--her feebly imagined Serendipity role needs all the humanity it can get. She and Cusack have potential chemistry, but not the heat required to bring the experiment to a rolling boil. It's cold fusion at best. She would've been ideal for High Fidelity, but she was sixty-five pounds bigger then, pregnant, so Cusack had to wait for her until now. Pity.
Jon jots his phone number on a $5 bill; Sara promptly spends it on mints, then jots her number in a copy of García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. She says she'll sell it, and then if fate places that fiver and that book in each other's hands someday, they'll know they were meant to be together. (Does Sara know that before fate reunites the couple in García Márquez's book, the guy cheats on the girl with 622 women?) Sara, dimwit mystic tease that she is, devises yet another trial: They'll simultaneously punch random buttons in separate elevators at the Waldorf, and if they emerge on the same floor, it'll be kismet. What is this, the Immunity Challenge on Survivor? Sara's not a maiden, she's a MacGuffin, a plot point, a marketing concept.
Flash forward a few years. Jon's about to marry some girl so devoid of personality she's practically transparent. It's Bridget Moynahan, who induces in the viewer total short-term memory loss of her existence. Sara has a more engaging fiancé, a musician (John Corbett) who comes off like Kenny G playing a hookah. Corbett gets one fun bit, agonizing over the motivations of the Vikings in his music video. But his courtship with Sara exists solely to receive a decent Viking funeral--she burns him to return to the New York site of her old flame. Horribly, pointlessly, she's accompanied by her best friend (Molly Shannon, who specializes in one emotion, awkward discomfort). At least Moynahan is forgettable; Shannon's performance is the stuff of nightmares. She ought not to be in pictures.
Jon has the film's only beautiful relationship, with his best friend, a New York Times obituary writer (Jeremy Piven, Cusack's best friend for life, and the hungriest actor you ever saw). Piven gets two fine scenes: his wedding-rehearsal toast, which hails himself as the true love of Jon's life (there's lots of weird homophobia in the film, but this bit at least is funny), and his attempt to tackle Jon on Sara's front lawn to prevent him from seeing an apparently naked Sara in flagrante delicto through a window. The good scenes start strong and go nowhere, but most scenes in this film start nowhere and wander off into nothingness.
Serendipity, like Cusack's whole career, illustrates the New Auteur Theory in action: Forget the old heroes, the people with the camera--they can't save us. Who could have more heart and soul than Chelsom (Funny Bones) and de Borman (Saving Grace, The Full Monty)? All Chelsom can do here is smuggle in the odd slice of life: a random Hasidic golfer glimpsed at a driving range, a bracing swoosh of the camera here and there. If you want to work, you've got to cast your style before swine.
No, our sole hope is the enlightened despotism of actors. Look what Cusack's ornery independence has achieved. He broke out of the Brat Pack by renouncing and artistically trouncing the soulless corporate youth movie, etched his Grifters role in righteous acid, co-wrote the against-the-grain High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank, and made the screen world safe for Spike Jonze and Nick Hornby. When he does a big, dumb film, it's to collect clout for art, and he subverts Mammon at every opportunity. If he must do an action hero in Con Air, he does it in Birkenstocks. He forced a wholesale rewrite of America's Sweethearts when he took the lead from Billy Crystal, trying to put some English on the gags, some backspin. Cusack may even reverse Woody Allen's creative death spiral in the film they're cooking up. The key is that Cusack is savvy, pragmatic, yet skew to the plane of all that makes movies so bad.
Most signs of life in Serendipity were planted furtively by actors desperate to escape the story's shackles. Eugene Levy does much with little as a martinet sales clerk who briefly torments Cusack. (But see how much more he can do in Best in Show or the lost worlds of SCTV or Splash, where he was unconfined by formulas.) Most of the film's best moments are the largely improvised scenes of Cusack and Piven cracking wise. Those spontaneous looks of shock you see on the wedding party's faces in Piven's toast scene are reactions to startlingly off-the-script things he made up on the spot. It would be grimly charmless to hear Jon and Sara quiz each other about their favorite sex positions on their first skating-rink date without Beckinsale's expert pratfall on the ice and the nice-guy naturalness of Cusack's quip, "Yeah, that's my favorite position too." His performance has qualities the studio system can't grasp: It's humane, understated, seemingly uncorrupt.
When I'm on movie sets with big male stars, I'm always struck by how small they are--I feel like I could carry Nicolas Cage or Sly Stallone off under my arm, like Dino grabbing Sammy Davis and saying, "I'd like to thank the NAACP for this award!" Yet how they strut and puff themselves up! One $20 million star actually has a colleague slap his face to ready him for the camera, shouting, "You're [name of $20 million star]!" causing the star to bellow, "I'm [name of $20 million star]!" until he really feels big. It's Pathetic Method acting.
John Cusack, by contrast, really is big, over six feet tall. He flying-tackled me in the snow once on a film set, just for fun and out of boredom (and maybe to express his opinion of the press). It hurt: The guy is all muscle. But instead of acting big, he does the opposite. He crouches, makes himself look smaller, a rather cryptic human question mark in place of the human exclamation point that most stars aspire to become. (The scene in Being John Malkovich where he's on the 7 1/2 floor of a building with extremely low ceilings uses this Cusack tendency to excellent comic effect.) He always ducks the obvious, loud, self-aggrandizing statement in favor of the quiet, inquisitive, other-focused, elusively self-concealing statement. Not that he's any less of an egomaniac than most other stars--just more interesting.
Every love story on film is contrived, and we're all inclined to give the most rickety fairy tale the benefit of the doubt. All it takes is the illusion of spontaneity. Serendipity should have heeded the stern Correct Usage warning under "serendipity" in my Encarta dictionary: "The idea of discovery is necessary to the word." As John Barth put it, "You don't reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings." But nothing is left to chance in Serendipity. The film should have been as open to discovery as its star is. As it is, the whole excessively premeditated thing has less emotional resonance than that single quick scene in Being John Malkovich where Cusack's puppeteer character manipulates a pair of marionettes miming a tortured embrace. You know they're made of wood, you can clearly see the strings--everything you see on a screen is a manipulation--yet you can feel an unmistakable human pain and passion.
John Cusack probably won't get elected President of the United States. But maybe he should be President of Hollywood.
Why did Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick want Spielberg to direct Kubrick's A.I., the fable of a robot who wants a human mother's love? Imagine the personals ad Kubrick might have taken out:
"YOU LIKE: sweetness & light, plucky kids, happy endings, 'When You Wish Upon a Star.' I LIKE: a hope-free environment, leering homicidal teens, pitilessly ambiguous Götterdämmerungen, icy Gyorgi Ligeti melodies written 'as a dagger in Stalin's heart.' LET'S MEET FOR A MOVIE!"
Maybe they had a mutual case of genius envy. Kubrick needed Spielberg's speed. Ever since 2001's success freed him to do almost anything he wanted, Kubrick yearned to make a blockbuster as big as The Godfather or Star Wars or E.T. But he couldn't, because he enslaved himself with research. "I usually take about a year [developing a film]," he said in 1968. "In a year, if you keep thinking about it, you can pretty well exhaust the major lines of play, if you want to put it in chess terminology. Then as you're making the film, you can respond to the spontaneity of what's happening with the resources of all the analysis you've done."
After 1971, Kubrick's spontaneity expired (if not his genius). He spent decades mulling movies more than making them. Most of what he actually shot was over-thought, emotionally parched. Spielberg once (according to critic Michael Sragow) compared watching Barry Lyndon to "walking through the Louvre without lunch." Kubrick was all about making marmoreal masterworks, not pleasing mortals with morsels of wish-fulfillment fantasy.
But surely he knew, as the real 2001 approached, that he wouldn't live long enough to fulfill his own fantasy: an A.I. movie starring real robots instead of actors (most of whom he treated like robots). And a child actor would age visibly during a yearslong Kubrick shoot. He hoped Spielberg might whip up a computer-generated boy for the lead, or at least do his famous fast magic with a live child actor.
So what's in it for Spielberg, in making a Kubrick movie? Perhaps to "eat at the grownups' table," as Woody Allen put it--to join the highbrow pantheon. Spielberg makes filmmaking look too easy, and makes too much easy money. We've all spent wild nights with his flying bikes and leaping lizards, but not everybody respects him in the morning. Many say Schindler's List is sui generis and Private Ryan simplistically jingoistic; his serious-issue movies The Color Purple and Amistad suck dead eggs. But when he dares to swap DNA with über-director Kubrick, you've got to give him credit.
There could be deeper motives. Biographical critics Joseph McBride and Henry Sheehan trace a strain of father fear in Spielberg's movies, and the father figures he seems fondest of are akin to movie moguls: Attenborough the proprietor of Jurassic Park, Schindler the factory "Direktor," and in A.I., William Hurt as Professor Hobby, the entrepreneurial inventor of the robot boy David. (Professor Hobby is far kinder than David's adoptive dad, played by Sam Robards.) The company Kubrick formed to produce Aryan Papers, the Holocaust movie he scuttled after Schindler's List hit, was called Hobby Films. How better to honor a cinematic daddy than to finish his film in his style with a character named Hobby? What better way to transcend the anxiety of influence than to blend pastiche with one's own stylistic voice?
Anyhow, now it's finished: A.I., a film (as one producer put it) by "Stevely Kuberg." It's like no other movie, because it's so much like so many other movies. In one brilliant scene, the robots scavenge spare parts for themselves from a dump of less fortunate fellow robots: a new jaw here, a forearm there. The parts fit together jaggedly, but the crude welds enable the robots to function. That's the way A.I. is built: not just Spielberg's style mashed into Kubrick's, but characters and stories and particular shots from multitudinous movies (especially Kubrick's), all stuck together at odd angles. It's weird, but it works.
The primary source of A.I. is Brian Aldiss's "Supertoys Last All Summer Long," and two of his other very short stories about David, the robot with the mommy problem. Kubrick jammed David's story together with the story of Pinocchio. This misses the point of Aldiss's tale: Pinocchio wants to earn the right to be real, but David the robot doesn't get it that he's not a real boy. In the film, David (portrayed with sensitive precision by the eeriest boy actor on earth, Haley Joel Osment) has a more primal urge: to make Mommy (the generically cute Frances O'Connor) love him, no matter what it takes.
When David enters his human Mommy and Daddy's house, he's backlit to look like the tall, spindly extraterrestrials in Close Encounters. Then he's revealed to be an almost perfect replica of a human: a bit shiny-faced and stiff, but convincing, even by the standards of the day (the usual futuristic post-apocalyptic Earth, whose advanced gizmo science produces what Kubrick used to call a "mechanarchy"). At first, sitting at dinner, shot from above through a circular lamp that echoes the War Room in Dr. Strangelove, David seems remote. When he emits a barking laugh and points at the strand of spaghetti dangling from Mommy's chin, and then Mommy and Daddy laugh, it's hard to say whose laugh is more mechanical.
After Mommy imprints herself on David according to the owner's manual, however, his face melts into beatific rapture. Osment does a good job of conveying love at first sight. David hugs Mommy. Later, he's shot from below, with a lamp granting him a halo, like the one that gives Strangelove a nimbus when doomsday arrives. David gets his halo when he becomes aware of death: "Mommy, will you die?"
It's creepy, because of course Mommy doesn't love David--he's just a substitute for her real son, Martin (Jake Thomas), who must remain comatose for years until science can revive him. (The lad is stashed in a bubble bed like the ones astronauts hibernate in in 2001.) At last, Martin is defrosted and comes home. It's bad for David, an echo of the displacement of Alex by Joe the Lodger in A Clockwork Orange. The convincingly bratty Martin taunts David, a cold, Kubrickian echo of the domestic comedy of Spielberg's enchanted suburbia.
Two scenes of mythic impact ensue. Martin tricks David into snipping a lock of Mommy's hair as she makes like Sleeping Beauty one night; Mommy makes excuses for him. But at a pool party soon after, the real boys threaten David, who clutches Martin, begs, "Keep me safe!" and falls with him into the pool. Martin requires CPR after being fished out, and as he's receiving it, the camera pans back from David, infinitely disconsolate on the pool bottom. He recedes, like the castoff astronaut drifting into space in 2001 (the one who doesn't get to be reborn as the Star Child).
David recedes yet again later in the film--in Mommy's rearview mirror when she abandons him in the woods. This is palpable horror. It's not a standard Spielberg kiddie-peril scene, though, because one uneasily identifies with the mom's predicament--at least she didn't send him back to the factory to be destroyed--and David's monomania has begun to alienate our affections just a bit.
Into the woods goes David. He glimpses those scavenging robots--a folksy lot, like hobos in a 1930s Warner flick, though their busted-upness mainly alludes to the wooden boys hacked up by wicked Stromboli in Pinocchio. He meets his rakish new pal, Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a robot with hair like a Bob's Big Boy statue, built for sex with lonely human women. Law breathes life into a clammy mise en scène--you'll miss him when he goes. Spielberg made him nicer than Kubrick would've done, but it's no sellout. It simply buries the weirdness deeper. Joe tries to tell David that his mommy doesn't love him any more than Joe's dates love him, but David won't listen.
When Joe laments of his creators, "They made us too smart, too quick and too many," he's echoing Coppola's quote about how his crew making Apocalypse Now had "too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane." The idea is to critique techno-culture, but the point is muddled, and the film's heart isn't really in it whenever it sounds the danger: technology alarm. Ominously, the woods are lit up by a false moon--an aircraft that hunts robots for the Flesh Fair, a demolition derby where humans take out their frustrations by burning and hacking up robots. The moon is a cruel parody of the kindly moon in E.T. But whereas abandonment by Mommy registers emotionally, violence against robots just doesn't.
It's a relief when Joe leads David to Rouge City, a sci-fi update of Pinocchio's Pleasure Island, with big bridges shaped like women's gaping mouths, to evoke the Korova Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange (which was much scarier). Rouge City is a letdown: It's Blade Runner; it's Judge Dredd's town; we've seen it all before. Its plot function is to give David the Pinocchio prediction that a Blue Fairy will make him a real boy.
David heists an amphibicopter and buzzes off with Joe to Manhattan, flooded up to the Statue of Liberty's torch (a nod to Planet of the Apes). He meets his maker, Professor Hobby (a nod to Rutger Hauer's scene with his maker in Blade Runner), confronts the existence of other Davids and has an existential tantrum. Here's where Kubrick would nastily stress that David has become a real boy in the sense that now he kills robots too; Spielberg makes it a friendlier reunion, just as he changed Michael Crichton's sinister dinosaur-park entrepreneur to a jolly man in Jurassic Park. Either way, as a Kubrickian snarl or a Spielbergian coo, the scene would come off as abstract and unaffecting.
Arbitrarily, Hobby leaves David alone a minute, and soon we see him leap from a skyscraper (Radio City) into Manhattan's briny abyss. This is formally a quote from Pinocchio's dives to escape Pleasure Island and rescue his father at the bottom of the sea, but it has no resonance, because it's not really part of an intelligible narrative movement. There is no sense of escape; it's a slow fall, not scary at all. The whole movie is by this point as drifty as seaweed in a lulling current. David's bed at home resembles Monstro, the whale that imprisons Pinocchio, and yet it's snug and inviting. What does this mean? Plainly, this movie doesn't work at the level of straightforward causality. It's a troubling dream.
A.I. has two endings involving the Blue Fairy, and I guess I shouldn't reveal either. Suffice it to say that the one Kubrick probably would have stopped with is clearly superior, colder, mysterious without being muddled. The second, Spielbergian ending is fuzzier, more redemptive and alludes to the cosmic ending of 2001 and Kubrick's cuddly aliens and snug family feelings.
A.I. ends with a whimper (or two), but I got a huge bang out of it. It's full of stunning images: sad, disintegrating faces, a robot boy's strangely shining eyes, lively artifacts of humanized technology. Although it's in an utterly different key, the blend of sensibilities is not an adulteration but an improving alchemy. A.I. effectively combines the moody indeterminacy of Kubrick, especially the Kubrick of 2001, and the addiction to happily-ever-aftering of Spielberg. There's also the merest flavor of what William Everson once called "one of the screen's supreme moments of horror"--the scene in Pinocchio where the boy, in midtransformation into a donkey, shrieks, "Mama!" until he's deprived of human speech and his mama can't hear him anymore. When you're not a real boy, no one can hear you scream.
It's been six years since Dogme 95 nailed its ten-point "Vow of Chastity" to the door of world cinema. Lars von Trier's gang of four Danish film rebels flung an inkwell at the father of Hollywood lies, calling for an end to auteurist indulgences, corrupt special effects, duplicitous props and sets, backslider's reshoots and the devil's tricks with camera and soundtrack. As pious as my Lutheran Grandma Dyveke, they demanded an overnight reformation. And now they've finally unveiled the fourth film from the movement, Kristian Levring's The King Is Alive. Apparently, nothing takes longer than absolute spontaneity.
It took the Dogme-ticians only 150 seconds to devise each of the ten rules of the Vow of Chastity, and from the start they were fully prepared to violate them all. Dogme directors are expected to submit a list of their "sins" in making their films-- the parts of the Vow they've broken. Yet their playfulness about the creative process is also dead serious. They view their allegiances the way Mary McCarthy was said to regard marriage. They need a worthy ideal to be unfaithful to.
Von Trier remains the high priest of the movement, even though 1998's The Idiots, his only film made under formal Dogme rules, was by far the worst of the four. An encounter-group-grope movie, whose big nude scene he directed in the nude, The Idiots is completely overshadowed by his great, albeit grandiose, proto-Dogme epic Breaking the Waves, about a simple country girl (Emily Watson) whose crippled husband manipulates her into having sex with thugs who kill her, and the semi-Dogme musical Dancer in the Dark, about a simple country girl (Björk) manipulated by a suicidal man into killing him.
But even when they're not strictly Dogme-tic, von Trier's films make the world safe for certain Dogme qualities: a restless, handheld camera; jolting edits; a grainy look; a love of ugliness; an ensemble cast gradually reverting to savagery; a burning urge to live in the moment; and a Sade-esque compulsion to put a stink up God's nostrils.
Thomas Vinterberg's 1998 The Celebration was the first hit Dogme flick. In place of von Trier's gathering of orgiasts getting in touch with their inner idiots, Vinterberg stages a family reunion at which the son rebukes the patriarch for raping him and his sister as kids. To me, it was smug, sentimental, bad Bergman pastiche, but the film world ate it up and clamored for more.
What they got was Søren Kragh-Jacobsen's 1999 Mifune, a screwball comedy. To make a genre movie overtly violates the eighth commandment of the Vow--"Genre movies are not acceptable"-- but the constraints of spontaneous filmmaking can make Dogmeteurs revert to narratives more generic than Hollywood's. No problem: Be it ever so sinful, Mifune is humane and fresh where von Trier and Vinterberg are lumbering and sulfurous. It's a gas--a giddy, romping shaggy-dog tale wherein a Copenhagen businessman revisits his ramshackle family farm in the country, ruled by his beguiling half-wit brother (Jesper Asholt), an aficionado of samurai films and crop-sculpting aliens. Kragh-Jacobsen calmed down the Dogme shaky-cam and made a virtue of available light sources. The film has champagne spirit on a beer budget.
For my money, Kragh-Jacobsen was the top Dogme dog, but Levring's The King Is Alive has given me second thoughts. It looks sensational, walks the minimalist tightrope with balletic brio and, like many good things, begins in sin. A closeup of a face on a bus yields to a shot of a bus from above, rolling down a bleak road; this image gives way to a glimpse of coldly remote mountains. Clearly, Dogme-flouting technology was involved--you're not supposed to use tripods, let alone aerial shots. But Levring honors the spirit of the law: The movie is about the human-scale consequences of confrontation with implacable nature.
At the wheel of the bus is Moses (Vusi Kunene), a gentle black African whose name is a gag--he's about to get his passengers horrifyingly lost in the desert, because the compass on his dash is busted. Moses pulls the bus into the best Dogme set you ever saw: a tiny ghost town called Kolmanskop. A globe-trotting director of TV commercials, Levring knew just where to find an exceptionally evocative set--crucial when you're forbidden to construct one to your specifications. It's an abandoned mining burg in the Kalahari, maintained by the Namibian government as a museum, and so it helpfully contained old-fashioned kerosene lamps, mining tools, weathered furniture and rooms half filled with sand spilling through the open doors, driven by winds hauntingly captured by Levring's multiple microphones.
Though the Vow is a bit muddled concerning precisely which bits of technology are forbidden, I think those many mikes constitute another sin, illustrating an intriguing contradiction of Dogme. The quest to capture the true moment clashes with its low-tech strictures: You better your odds of nailing spontaneous greatness with more and better technology. In the interview on the DVD of Dancer in the Dark, von Trier says he shot the musical sequences with 100 cameras, but would have preferred 1,000, and looks forward to the day when technology permits 10,000 cameras. Will the Vow be altered to accommodate technology's inexorable march? Maybe; but the Dogme-ticians won't lose sleep over their crimes. Sin boldly! That's the Dogme spirit.
When Moses discovers that Kolmanskop's gas tanks are all dry, the passengers panic. A take-charge Aussie (Miles Anderson) strides up to the sole human in town, an old African (Peter Kubheka), viewing the proceedings from some mysterious otherworld. What's he doing there, unthinkable miles from nowhere? Waiting for an ensemble to arrive so he can comment on them in portentous voiceover. (He's not the most successful character in the film.)
The Aussie passes on the old man's wisdom: The only food in town is a cache of tinned carrots, some poisonous, and to survive, they must learn to drink dew. "Above all, we stay positive and we keep our spirits up!" (Positive? Doesn't he know he's in a Dogme film?) Then he marches into the desert for help. The others are to wait five days for his return, then start picturesquely blackening the sky with burning tires to attract airplanes, because if he's not back, he's dead.
A shot of a roomful of sand yields to footsteps in the desert. Efficiently, Levring has placed us with the protagonists in one hell of a Jack London jam.
The tourists know just what to do: They freak out. Guzzle hooch, start arguments and bonfires, jump and jive in the flames and shadows. The prospect of death makes them horny, and very pissed off. Several cordless cameras roamed while the cast went on a wild chase, each to find the depths of his or her own character, none ever certain when on or off camera. It kept them honest. The twenty-minute setups permitted by location shooting and state-of-the-art videocams enabled Levring to get around the no-reshoots rule: He kept rewriting scenes and then shooting them in altered forms, merging rehearsal and performance, until he got pure takes. And who needs makeup (a Dogme no-no), when for six weeks you've got the sun to bake faces and whittle away at bodies until they resemble contestants on TV's Survivor?
What passes between the passengers is not embedded in any structured story, and the emotions don't make much naturalistic sense. A big woman (Janet McTeer) unhappily married to a bland man (Bruce Davidson) lashes her husband with cat-o-nine-tails insults and tries to provoke Moses in an ugly racial come-on. An angelic party girl (Jennifer Jason Leigh) with excelsior for brains and a Walkman instead of a mental life tries to make nice with an irascible French intellectual (Romane Bohringer), who heaps contempt in French on the uncomprehending kid.
Watching the group get ever more nasty, a grizzled old Brit tourist (David Bradley) murmurs, "Is man no more than this?" He gets the notion to jot down what he can remember of King Lear and get the others to enact it, to pass whatever time they've got left. The ragged, fragmentary scenes don't add up to a play-within-a-play; Shakespeare is just another existing light source under which to study characters. It works better than, say, Gus Van Sant's hippified Shakespeare in the otherwise exemplary My Own Private Idaho; Levring doesn't attempt to update the Bard, and he's not aiming at a large thematic statement or strained parallel. He more modestly uses bits of Lear to spotlight aspects of character. "Howl! Howl! Howl!" spoken by the old Brit dramatizes his grief, the Leigh character's self-destruction and the death of his own long-lost daughter. The Brit's half-remembered Lear is, like the mining town, a timeless found ruin occupied by a Dogme 95 fairy tale.
Why does The King Is Alive live, even though it's so artificial and disconnected? It creatively unleashes the actors while preventing the usual scene-stealing games. The scenes don't exactly add up, but they are riveting while they last, and the countdown to calamity or rescue provides a sustaining tension in place of a plot. The voluptuous curves and lurid lights of the desert are stunningly photogenic, and the cheap but sophisticated equipment achieves operatic effects. This may be Dogme's best shot.
But does it really do what the revolutionaries set out to do in 1995? Does it truly "force the truth out of...characters and settings"? No, because there is no single "truth," and only a narrow zealot would claim to find one. Like all the Dogme films, its real sin is to do what they promise: to "regard the instant as more important than the whole." Ultimately, and however salubrious its influence on moviedom, Dogme film is a dead end, because in art, the whole is more important than the instant.
But my God, does it have its moments.
Pauline Kael (that scamp) once called the Italian neorealist classic The Earth Trembles "the best boring movie ever made." Today the earth is inundated with Iranian neo-neorealism, a wave of arguably boring good movies with cheapo production values, aleatoric docu-dramaturgy, dewy but not innocent amateur actors and a piercing concern for the downtrodden.
Not that Iran is in a retro film renaissance. The scene's three heavy directors (Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi) and their progeny bring fresh goodies to the neorealist party: a passion for puzzles with half-matching pieces, an eye for color and design, a love of the found object and the hidden theme. Their what-is-reality narrative games resemble our old-time Modernist religion without actually growing out of it. Iranian film is proof, in fact, that similar evolutionary leaps occur in isolated populations.
It's also fruitfully incestuous. The patriarch Kiarostami put Iran on the map with movies like Close Up (1990). It could be titled Becoming Mohsen Makhmalbaf--it's a hall-of-mirrors movie using the people from the real-life case of a guy who was tried for impersonating the country's second-most-respected director. The hoaxer's victim told the impersonated director, "Mr. Makhmalbaf, the other Mr. Makhmalbaf was more Makhmalbaf than you are." Makhmalbaf went on to mess with his own identity in A Moment of Innocence (1996), starring himself and a cop that he actually stabbed as a young revolutionary in 1974. Puckishly, they re-enact the stabbing, coaching teens to play their younger selves. This brilliant film makes the political intimately personal.
But Iran's biggest hit came from the number-three director, Kiarostami's ambitious assistant, Panahi. His 1995 The White Balloon avoids bizarro-world storytelling, though it's written by Kiarostami. Simply, it follows 7-year-old Razieh (the formidably whiny Aida Mohammadkhani), who stalks the streets of Teheran (actually a picturesquely preserved traditional exurb) seeking a fat goldfish for New Year's Day. She confronts a cross section of society--snake charmers, a tailor, a solicitous soldier. The scenes have an offhand beauty, and the composition is careful: Razieh loses her goldfish money down a sewer grate with vertical bars neatly framed by the horizontal bands of a metal shutter and a patterned brick wall. Panahi is an artful dodger of censorship: If you were a credulous government censor, you might not notice that the snake show is like forbidden cinema ("I wanted to see what it was that was not good for me to watch," says Razieh), or that her sitcom dad, shouting in the shower that his kid got him soap instead of shampoo, is a tyrant. That soldier who comforts the kid is kind--if that's how you think of authorities--or unsettlingly intrusive if not.
Panahi blew it with his follow-up, the slapdash slab-of-life drama The Mirror (1997). In it, a girl (Mina Mohammadkhani) wanders a poorly photographed town after her mom forgets to pick her up from school, getting rides in buses and cars and listening to garrulous grownups gab, mostly about social issues. Kiarostami is a virtuoso of the car-ride philosophizing scene; Panahi is unconvincing in impersonating his style. The girl throws a tiff, doffs her costume, shouts at the suddenly visible camera crew, "I'm not acting anymore!" and goes home. The film mumbles itself to sleep. Kiarostami speaks of a spontaneous, "half-created" cinema, but this is half-assed. Maybe Panahi should leave the Pirandello stuff to the other guys.
But then, he should make more movies like his latest, the first big Iranian/Italian neo-neorealist movie, The Circle. (The Italians put up much of the dough; it's Panahi's show.) Even if you want to strangle all the critics who sold you on sitting through the more excruciatingly non-goal-oriented Iranian flicks, you may love The Circle as much as I do. Granted, we've all cut Teheran's Tinseltown way too much slack because it's so noble, the ultimate indie insurgency untainted by the Great Infotainment Satan, issuing urgent bulletins from a cultural battlefront that makes the Bush Administration look like Weimar. But The Circle is great in purely formal terms, quite apart from its searing social/political critique. Panahi is not quite in Satyajit Ray's league, but now he's in the same ballpark.
The Circle opens the way The White Balloon did: with credits on a black screen and the scene set by sound--jangly, upbeat street sounds in The White Balloon, foreboding shrieks of childbirth here. A square window in a stark white door slides open, framing a nurse in a white room wearing a white nunlike getup. A woman symmetrically clad in black anxiously asks about her daughter, the new mother. "It's a girl!" exults the grinning nurse. Disaster! "The in-laws will be furious. They'll insist on a divorce," says the new grandma. "They want a boy." The camera tracks the mourning grandma making her circuitous way past the inquiring in-laws and out of the hospital. It feels like a slow-motion prison breakout.
She passes two actual prison escapees anxiously huddling in the street, Nargess (radiant 18-year-old movie newcomer Nargess Mamizadeh) and the slightly older Arezou (Maryiam Parvin Almani), both draped in black. The camera (wielded by Bahram Badakhshani with more fluid grace than cinematographer Farzad Jadat displayed in The White Balloon) lets grandma make her stately way offscreen and focuses on the young women, picking up their jittery energy. A man in the street sexually taunts them. In the background, cops round up another female; the convicts whip on chadors and hunker down behind a car. They mean to light out for the territory, Nargess's paradisaical hometown, but they need bus fare. Arezou leads Nargess to a sinister-looking building and has her wait at the foot of a circular stairway; Arezou ascends, goes off with men and returns with cash.
Arezou proceeds to tell Nargess she must make her freedom ride: "I couldn't handle seeing that your paradise might not exist," says the despairing Arezou, whose name means "hope." Nargess ("flower"), boards the bus bound for the central terminal, braving the big city on a solo mission, like the kids in The White Balloon and The Mirror. The implicit feminist revolt in those films is here right out in the open; the soldier comforting the girl in The White Balloon has become the prowling Javerts of the police state. When Nargess impulsively buys a shirt for her hometown beau, the shopkeeper asks a soldier to model it for size; girlish amusement at his discomfiture but also terror of his power play across her face. As she's about to board the final bus home, she sees police and flees instead.
The focus shifts to the story of an older, sadder, wiser escaped convict, Pari (veteran actor Fereshteh Sadr-Orafai, who also appeared in The White Balloon). For some reason not explained (Iranian directors like to keep you guessing about plot points), Nargess tracks Pari to her father's house. "Tramp!" yells Pari's père. "Consider Pari dead!" Abruptly, Pari's brothers roar up the tiny tunnel-like alley on a motorbike to the dad's door. The beefy duo, a Tweedledum and Tweedledee of evil, strong-arm their way inside and (if I catch their drift) demand to redeem their sister's disgrace by beating her bloody. Shouts and scuffles are heard inside; the door bumps open and shut as if in a cyclone. It's the film's creepiest scene, with a claustrophobia worthy of Kafka.
Panahi makes a virtue of his limitations, and I'm not sure they're strictly budgetary or governmental. (The censors never got their mitts on this one.) We should be careful about imposing a Western (or Upper Wide Side) Freud trip on him, as the clever critic Georgia Brown did in teasing out sexual symbols in The White Balloon. Remember what Linus said in Peanuts when someone suggested that because he'd drawn a figure with its hands behind its back, it revealed he had deep psychological demons? "I did that because I myself can't draw hands." I think Panahi put the fight behind that door because he couldn't stage a fight scene to save his life. But he manages to convey conflict in sneakier ways. And compared with the subtle, orchestrated tension of The Circle, joining the fight club would be boring.
Pari flees and looks up her jail pal Elham (Elham Saboktakin), a nurse at a hospital with gates like bars. Pari, it turns out, is pregnant. She can't get the OK for an abortion from her dad, and her lover was executed, so he can't sign. But Elham won't help: She lives in terror enough to begin with, that her doctor husband will find out about her past--she can't even visit his hometown in Pakistan because they'd check her at the border. The husband appears behind the women's locker-room door, voicing suspicions. Pari should get lost, fast...
Which she does, and meets Nayereh (Fatemeh Naghavi), who is cowering behind a car watching her blubbering daughter being comforted by strangers--Nayereh hopes they'll adopt her and save the child from some unnamed calamity. (The unemphatic unspecificity of the disasters in The Circle rescues them from sentimental issue-of-the-weekism.) The little-girl-lost scenes in The White Balloon and The Mirror are retrospectively cast in a stark new light, as well.
Stunned, a zombie, Nayereh abandons her child and walks along a dark street followed by the implacable camera. Her stricken face is a constant; only the background changes. It's a wonderfully evocative long take in a movie full of long takes, a little like the alley-of-corruption scene at the end of Catch-22, only not pretentious. Nayereh trusts the kindness of a stranger in a passing car. "How about a lift?" Don't do it, Nayereh, he's a rapist! But he's a vice cop instead. She's booked on suspicion of prostitution.
Gradually, since the first scene, the chase-movie cinematography has yielded to the statelier pace of despair. In the earlier chase scenes, the young women's chadors billowed in the breeze like Supergirl's cape; but Nayereh in flight seems as immobile as the statue at Clover Adams's tomb. A hard darkness slowly grips the film. The cinematic style of The Circle closes in in a way that reminds me of the increasing formal rigidity of each stanza in Auden's elegy for Yeats. By the end, it's full of spectral resignation.
The last scene is a dark visual echo of the first. The camera pans across a black circular cell, past the three escapees we've met, up to a square window in an institutional door. A man inside asks whether Solmaz Gholami is in there--no, it seems she's been transferred to another cell. Solmaz is the unseen mother in the first scene (it's also Panahi's daughter's name). In Persian, the name means "eternal."
Which Booker Prize-winner could give Hollywood the boot in the arse it needs and secretly craves? Roddy Doyle, that's who. His Barrytown Trilogy (The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van) is somewhat more consistent than the Godfather Trilogy and less dependent on film tradition. His flicks don't exactly blow Coppola's away, but they're at least as good at sparking a family to rampageous life. It's not images that render Doyle's Dublin Rabbitte clan--it's the talk. Doyle's characters are comets of conversation, a bit like Preston Sturges heroes, daredevilishly suspended in thin plots by sheer velocity and nerve.
Doyle was a Dublin schoolteacher who poured his students' joie de vivre into a novel, The Commitments (1991), about scrappy Irish dole kids who become a soul band. When publishers returned it unopened, Doyle published it himself; then Alan Parker's posse buffed it into one of the best music movies ever, realer-seeming than the current exquisite memory film Almost Famous. It succeeds because it celebrates failure with integrity. As they say about soul music in the film, "It grabs you by the balls and lifts you above the shite."
The Commitments is the best Doyle film because it has Hollywood polish and story shape, but what makes it great is Doyle's untutored talent for dialogue in a medium dominated by words overprocessed and extruded by studios in terror of an original syllable. The Snapper (1993), made for BBC peanuts by Stephen Frears, a London genius who flops whenever he tries to go Hollywood, is a haphazard tale of unwed Dublin motherhood. Lost from the novel it's based on is the inside tour of the mother's thoughts, but still, it's a pure jolt of Doyle dialogue, uncut by movie pros.
What a rush! Who cares if the story has no sense of direction when you've got an intense sense of place and a vital ensemble engaged in the verbal equivalent of a food fight? Even the girl's loathsome impregnator Georgie Burgess (sag-eyed Pat Laffan) is so real, so rooted, you could kiss his puff-pastry face. Doyle captures the fractious loyalty and contained chaos that inspired the comic Martin Mull to say that having a family is "like having a bowling alley installed in your brain." While the eloquently exasperated expectant grandpa (Colm Meaney) tries to pry Burgess's identity out of his "up the pole" daughter, his younger girl high-steps past wearing baton-twirler's duds and a shaving-foam beard; a soused son vomits in the kitchen sink; grandpa-to-be says, "You'll do those dishes!" and gets back to interrogating without missing a beat.
The film The Van (1996), about the Dublin dad's fish-and-chip truck venture, was a bigger comedown from Doyle's Booker-shortlisted book--not enough family feeling. Even so, his cult flicks got him a crack at writing a screenplay not derived from a novel; unhappily, it is derived from all too many movies. The trouble starts with the title: When Brendan Met Trudy. If you're going to quote a famous movie title, why pick one whose title is the worst thing about it?
While there's nothing wrong with stealing, Doyle and director Kieron Walsh are thieving magpies who can't weave bits into a nest for new life. The worst thing about When Brendan Met Trudy is its incessant, inconsequential movie references, no substitute for sturdy characters and witty chaff. In their opening-scene reprise of Sunset Boulevard, virginal 28-year-old schoolteacher Brendan (Peter McDonald) lies face-down on a rain-swept Dublin street as his voiceover suggests that we back up a few weeks to find out how he got there.
The original fulfills that promise with a clockwork plot. This scene is just a one-shot gag: We later find that Brendan tripped in the street, fell and took comfort in mumbling lines from an old movie. He's not dead, just dull, there for no reason besides the filmmaker's wish to quote Sunset Boulevard. Random events happen to Brendan. He sings Panis Angelicus with his church choir (a no-soul band). He absently teaches students whose names he can't keep straight (how can Doyle get nothing from this milieu?). He gets picked up in a pub by Trudy (Flora Montgomery), a determinedly spunky Ellen DeGeneres lookalike; takes her to "an important Polish movie" by "Tomaszewski"; has cute sex with her; suspects her of being the castrator who's (cutely) terrorizing Dublin; and helps her bungle a cutesy burglary of his school. The whimsy is wheezy.
We see clips from Once Upon a Time in the West, The Producers and The African Queen, and Brendan and Trudy re-enact scenes from movies. Brendan gets limp in flagrante in a hayloft. Trudy observes, "What's wrong? You were big a minute ago." He replies, "I am big; it's the pictures that got small." Putting Jean Seberg's New York Herald Tribune T-shirt on Trudy fails to make her Seberg in Breathless. When Belmondo apes Bogey in Breathless, he's his own man. Aping Belmondo, Brendan isn't anybody, just a dead cliché walking. He's very good at mimicking John Wayne's walk at the end of The Searchers--but he ain't goin' nowhere, pilgrim. This movie could be called Airless. Or Something Mild.
Doyle's talent glimmers here and there in the hokey-jokey dialogue; you may find bits charming and me grumpy. Maybe I wouldn't be so disappointed if it didn't come off like a tone-deaf imitation of a real Roddy Doyle movie--one with bighearted characters firmly planted in a real place, whipping up a world out of irreverently poetical words, making me feel like family, banishing the real world by sweeping me up in theirs. Doyle's excruciatingly self-conscious and lumbering farce is not quite shite, it's just the usual, when what we expect from him is a kick in the arse.
Looking Back: First-time director/writer Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count On Me won Best Screenplay and Best Actress from the National Society of Film Critics instead of the Oscars it also deserved, but how can you expect a bunch of Hollywood types to grasp fully an articulately understated, utterly honest work of art? In Lonergan's tale of an orphaned brother and sister's troubled love, every stammer, rant, skittish glance and awkward silence is precisely in character and scored like music.
Anyone could film an opening scene of a car crash that claims a young couple, but look how sensitively Lonergan handles the next: A cop's face materializes in the obscured glass of a front door. Sheriff Darryl (Adam LeFevre) tells the babysitter of the dead couple's kids, "Would you step outside and close the door?" Darryl's cop-speak must work on drunk drivers, but words fail him now and he's struck dumb with grief. The mute moment is searing, it evokes the closeness of their upstate New York town and it introduces two symbols of disconnection Lonergan loves: the door and the glass.
We flash forward to the orphaned girl Sammy (hummingbird-alert Laura Linney) in middle age, still living in her parents' manse with a wraparound porch like a comforting arm, baking plate-sized cookies for the return of her slouching jailbird hobo brother, Terry (Mark Ruffalo, a real find). On the bus home, Terry smokes joints as if they were his sole source of oxygen--the same way wild-child-turned-churchgoer Sammy smokes cigarettes when her 9-year-old son, Rudy (Rory Culkin, very like his brother Macaulay), is safely tucked in bed.
The town still cramps Terry. Sheriff Darryl is still in his face, confiningly benign. Terry literally can't breathe around the guy, because he'll exhale THC. And when Terry and Sammy meet, Lonergan economically conveys how they've coped with orphanhood in opposite ways. Terry became a Five Easy Pieces-style wandering wastrel. Single-mom Sammy stayed put, raising Rudy and working at a bank run by Brian (artfully blank-eyed Matthew Broderick). Brian is a preposterous martinet, ineptly tyrannical (he asks people to use "a more quote unquote normal range of colors" on their PCs), yet with a nonmean streak. So Sammy feels sorry for him and impulsively takes him to bed. She's always trying to save people.
The story's surface simplicity is deceptive. The relationships between Terry, Rudy, Sammy and her lovers grow together slowly, like frost tendrils in a windowpane. Subtext runs deep, and though he's not the world's most bravura visual director, Lonergan composes a tight symbolic structure connecting apparently desultory events. The climactic punchout scene is not contrived; it closes the circle of the lost-parent theme, and squares with Terry's belief in facing bad facts, not fleeing to faith and tradition. Watching him, you'd never know the 1960s myth of self-actualization was all self-deluded jive. (It sure beats the smug, pothead-bashing moralizing of the otherwise superb Wonder Boys.) Listening to him and Sammy and Rudy and a doleful minister (played well by Lonergan) talk about life, you'd think cinema was an art open to ideas. Plus, it's funny.
When I taught at Ted Bundy's alma mater, one student wrote this report: "He was our babysitter. He was not a very nice babysitter. He would play games and scare us and then say they were just games."
That's the kind of creepy mental peekaboo that made Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter (whose saga is partly inspired by Bundy, who was convicted by teeth marks) immortal. But Ridley Scott's movie of the Thomas Harris novel Hannibal is not scary. It's just a game.
Twice, Hannibal's tale has risen to pulp tragedy on camera, in Michael Mann's Manhunter (1986, reissued on a director's-cut DVD) and Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Demme made Hannibal a permanent pop phenom: dark father, demon lover, mind-reading puppetmaster, ruthless icon of will, intellect and appetite--he's a man for our time. Scott's Hannibal repeats pop-culture history as stylish farce. Not that the creator of Alien and Blade Runner has lost his voluptuous touch. There is much to admire in Hannibal, including the penultimate scene that reportedly made Demme, screenwriter Ted Tally and Jodie Foster (who played Hannibal's nemesis, FBI sleuth Clarice Starling, in The Silence of the Lambs) flee shrieking from the sequel project. (Spoiler alert: I'll describe this scene below.) Yet Scott's Hannibal is a diminished thing.
You can get at the heart of these films by comparing their snuff scenes. Manhunter boasts the most haunting opening scene: a killer's-eye view as he (the superb Tom Noonan, star of Buried Child on Broadway) ascends a stairway to a bedroom and shines a camcorder light on a woman's face until she awakens and sees her fate. Later, we see her as the madman himself does--with eerie lights in place of her eyes and mouth, as if she's lit from within by lust and magnesium. That's it--no gore, only horror. Horror is what you think, not what you see.
Demme's immensely humane, deeply moral, emotionally acute The Silence of the Lambs employs a like discretion. When Hannibal (Anthony Hopkins) cuffs and clubs his cop captor, we don't see the biting and bludgeoning directly; we see the cop's face as he grasps what's about to happen, and we see Hannibal's face, spattered with blood and then blissed out on exquisite music. Later, we see a tableau of the crucified cop with angelic wings made from red, white and blue bunting (Demme associates violence with extremist Americanism). It's the idea that's horrific, not really the tastefully distanced atrocity itself.
Both scenes abduct the viewer--carry us into the psycho's world. Hannibal, however, occurs on familiar movie turf. In the spiffy opening sequence, Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore, replacing Foster, acts like every plucky action heroine you ever saw) leads a stakeout at a drug drop in a fish market. The chief druggie pulls a gun from under the baby strapped to her chest and puts a bullet in Starling's leg; Starling puts one in the druggie's skull and rinses the HIV-infected blood off the otherwise unharmed baby on the fish market's cutting board. In the novel, the spray forms "a mocking rainbow of God's promise." Scott, who doesn't give a rip about that baby, focuses instead on the fascinating abstract pattern of the blood in the fish market ice cubes. He has aesthetics in place of the author's bitter religious ethics.
Starling gets blamed for the raid gone wrong, though it was really the sexist cop's fault for drawing his gun too soon. Starling's übersexist boss Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), a churl she's spurned, exploits her disgrace. But Starling's downfall is a dramatic dead end--empty calories. (There's an almost identical hackneyed Starling-disgrace scene Demme shot and wisely deleted--it's instructive to watch it on The Silence of the Lambs Criterion DVD.) Scott conveys the FBI gal's resistance to sexism with dialogue Hannibal would term "ham-handed"; Demme did it in deft images--Foster entering an elevator of oglers--and smart dialogue that respected each character. Krendler, like lots of Scott villains, has obviousness problems. (If I'd been poor Joaquin Phoenix, forced to utter those lines while everybody else got the good bits in Scott's Gladiator, I'd have fed myself to the lions.) When Hannibal insults Starling in Demme's film, his skill is chilling: "You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube.... You're not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling?" It gets under her skin and yours. When Liotta's Krendler insults Starling, it's like watching Peter Boyle tapdance in Young Frankenstein. "Corn pone country pussy," Liotta mutters. "I wouldn't mind having a go at you right now." "In the gym, anytime," Moore tritely replies. "No pads." No more!
Things perk up when we hook up with Hannibal in Florence, where he's living la dolce in an authentic fifteenth-century palazzo, with the view he craved in his Silence of the Lambs dungeon. Boy, does Scott feast his eyes on Florence! Squares alive with wheeling birds, arcades that reach prayerfully to heaven, sunlight on water like molten precious metal, arias afloat in the open air. The quick-cut, jagged black-and-white scenes are still more glorious. He makes us share Hannibal's epicurean idyll, and his glee in killing people he deems "rude." It's not as good as making us sweat with Starling in Hannibal's hellish cell, feel the clamp of his mind-forged manacles, fear the rot of all that is good in us by his infectious nihilism, but it's something. Lecter at large is lesser than Lecter yearning in a cage for the same reason that the only good thing Tim Leary ever wrote was his jailbreak account: Escape gives pressure and structure to a narrative, while endless freedom leads to aimless partying.
There's a $3 million reward on Hannibal's head, which attracts an Italian cop, Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini). Scott adroitly stages Pazzi's Hannibal hunt, which is, of course, Hannibal's Pazzi hunt. The cop looks glum, as well he might, since he's descended from the historical Pazzi who got defenestrated and eviscerated in a way certain to appeal to Hannibal Lecter. When Pazzi goes splat outside the palazzo, it's gross but barely disturbing.
More disturbing is the mistake Scott makes in dramatizing the character who has offered that $3 million reward, the meatpacking billionaire Mason Verger (Gary Oldman). The best duo in the novel is not Starling and Hannibal, it's Verger and his militant sister (AWOL from the movie). Verger is like a Goofus to Hannibal's Gallant--instead of using his wealth to savor the best in life and kill the rude, Verger uses it to gobble drugs indiscriminately and rape children. In a flashback, a younger Verger invites his psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter, home for sex, so he can blackmail him into concealing Verger's addictions. Lecter lets Verger tie himself up and offers a popper. Actually, it's speed, LSD and PCP, enabling Lecter to hypnotize Verger. When the good doctor advises Verger to slice his own face off with a mirror shard, Verger obeys; Lecter feeds Verger's face to his pooch.
Paralyzed yet all-powerful, a ghoul mouthing born-again cant, Verger should be a great monster, a fit antagonist for Hannibal. And he is on the novelistic page, with his hand that moves like a crab, his brutal moray eel and his videocamera trained on captive children whose tears he decants and drinks. On screen, he's just Gary Oldman, in scarface makeup resembling the hero of Sondra Locke's film Ratboy, and sounding like the unholy offspring of Andy Warhol and Jimmy Stewart with his teeth out. Oldman does a good acting job, but it's an impossible job, given the reduction of the role.
And it gets worse! Verger's plan is to nab Hannibal, drag him to his vast estate, Muskrat Farm, and feed him to big killer pigs. The problem: Pigs are adorable onscreen. They have these cute little snoots, and when they eat somebody, it may be formally gory but these creatures are about as scary as the carnivorous rabbits hippety-hopping to devour humanity in Night of the Lepus. The buildup to the showdown is very much akin to Dr. Evil's "unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism" in Austin Powers.
Did you forget about Starling? While all the above is going on, she is trying to stop Pazzi from hunting Hannibal, and then hunts Hannibal herself. Scott is a fine choreographer of actors; one extended sequence of Starling and Hannibal chatting on cell phones while he leads her a merry chase on a merry-go-round is bravura filmmaking. Their twosome, alas, is not toothsome. When at last they meet after unnecessarily slow exposition, the good doctor purrs, "Good evening, Clarice. Just like old times!" It most certainly is not. In Silence of the Lambs, Foster's and Hopkins's faces interacted elementally, like wind and waves, or like fencers' foils crossed, bent, quivering, threatening to snap. Moore and Hopkins get no such quality face time. The script forces them to phone most of it in.
Moore is the genuine article, ambitious, gifted, artistic promise personified. Nobody sounds deeper, darker notes than she has in Boogie Nights and Short Cuts and (heroically, riskily) in Safe. What's wrong with her Starling, then, besides the words? The girl is all class--she lacks trash. "Trailer-camp, tornado-bait white trash," Hannibal calls Starling. But Julianne Moore is nothing of the sort. She's patrician, elusive and otherworldly. Jodie Foster, for all her Francophone Phi Beta ways, convinces the camera she's down-home, earthy, vulnerable, earnest, as pure as the kid in the Coppertone ad grown up uncorrupted.
And Anthony Hopkins? He's still got those odd, hooded bedroom eyes, all twinkly yet somehow immobile as the dead. His vocal instrument still croons, but he's changed Lecter's key this time. Before, comedy was a palate cleanser; this time, it's the main course. Really, his latest Lecter, free to roam, is a lot like Anthony Hopkins is in person: witty, drifty, dreamy, delightful to talk with and remote as a hologram.
The climactic scene in Hannibal is a dream--don't listen to all those prissy critics who dissed it. Starling is stoned on opiates, and Lecter invites her through her wooze to have a friend for dinner. Or rather, an enemy: Krendler. Liotta, at a total loss for the rest of the movie, comes through in this moment of crisis (abetted by a $70,000 Ray Liotta robot doll indistinguishable from the real actor). He wears his baseball cap backwards, lending him an amusingly juvenile aspect. His speech, like HAL's in the last bit of 2001, reverts to childishness, peeling back his character, revealing his inner self, simple as it is. In a shocking shot I sincerely doubt you haven't heard about, Hannibal removes the top of his skull. There are many memorable effects in Ridley Scott's Hannibal: the miasmal mist over Verger's Muskrat Farm, the grain of wood inside Lecter's grandfather clock set against the ribbed pattern of the metal pendulum, the velvety sky enriching the lustrous blues of cop-car cherries crossing a bridge in funereal procession, the final image of the film, an iris shot of Lecter's red eye. But out of all the virtuoso moments, it's that dinner scene that sticks with you. Why? It's the one that plays for keeps.