Cherry Jones Makes History in Pride’s Crossing

Foolishly, I am just now catching up with Cherry Jones in the flawless production of Tina Howe’s Pride’s Crossing at Lincoln Center, and I am here to tell you the deservedly lavish praise this miraculous actress has already received doesn’t begin to prepare you for her blinding radiance. Eschewing film roles for steady theater jobs, she has learned the ABC’s of her craft down to and including the footnotes, and is now a one-woman manual on the art of acting technique. If you are remotely interested in greatness, you mustn’t even think of missing her.

Pride’s Crossing is cleverly staged, with pristine sets and the versatile performances of a six-member supporting cast, who alternate ages, genders and periods in a succession of roles. But Ms. Jones is the centerpiece-portraying a starchy, New England matriarch who once broke a world record for swimming the English Channel-and without makeup she grows from a dreamy child obsessed with becoming somebody, to an awkward, moody teenager crashing about under the kitchen table, to a 90-year-old survivor hardened and gnarled by arthritis. She makes every transformation with body language that is awesome. As an old woman, her speech is fuzzy, her mouth is crooked with what looks like the remnants of a stroke, her voice cracks like Katharine Hepburn’s. Minutes later, in a flashback, she’s diaphanous in Roaring 20′s lemon chiffon. These transitions seem effortless, yet she embraces every age and attitude with staggering honesty and a heart the size of Texas. From her alcoholic husband’s suicide at age 67 to the botching of the one great love of her life, a Jewish obstetrician whom she lacked the courage to marry (wonderfully played by David Lansbury), she makes you feel and share every emotion. This is a majestic, hypnotic and truthful performance in the tradition of Laurette Taylor, Kim Stanley, and Julie Harris at the height of their powers, the kind of consummate artistry seldom encountered in the New York theater in the 1990′s. Cherry Jones is overwhelming, and you are in for the treat of your life.

The Dude? Big Deal!

Question: What will the Coen brothers come up with to equal the cult status of Fargo ? Answer: nothing. The Big Lebowski , their new and eagerly anticipated follow-up film, is part slapstick Hollywood farce, part kidnap caper in the Raymond Chandler tradition, and all hooey. The whole thing is like a filmed acid trip, a cornball stew of frenetic head-bangers that defy interpretation or analysis. What a mess, and there is vomiting throughout.

To the strains of “Tumbling Tumbleweed,” Jeff Bridges plays a 70′s dropout with grungy beard, ugly sandals, a gray bathrobe and bermuda shorts called Jeff Lebowski, alias the Dude. One day, on his way home from drinking milk out of cartons at the supermarket, this bonehead’s creepy apartment at the beach is invaded and ransacked by thugs who mistake him for a Pasadena millionaire, also named Jeff Lebowski, peeing on his rug when they exit. John Goodman, who makes more bad movies than Bridget Fonda and Eric Stoltz put together, plays the Dude’s moronic, oafish, obnoxious, loudmouthed bowling buddy, Walter. Walter convinces the Dude to confront the other Lebowski and collect damages for his urine-soaked rug, but the old geezer turns out to be a mean-spirited Scrooge in a wheelchair (David Huddleston) who first throws the Dude out on his Ray-Bans, then employs him to deliver a cool million-dollar ransom for his kidnapped nymphet wife Bunny (Tara Reid).

The Dude and Walter, who couldn’t add up a combined I.Q. of 12, turn into a scuzzy version of Abbott and Costello, and when they decide to keep the million for themselves, the lunacy begins to escalate. What happens from that point on is a crazy quilt of interminable plot twists involving extortion, deception, embezzlement, sex and dope that demonstrate what happens when an unemployed doofus tries to outwit the felonious California upper crust. Everyone would be better off bowling, including the audience.

As the demented, convoluted plot careens out of control, a cast of thousands stampedes the camera, including a man in an iron lung, a landlord dancing in a tutu, a giggling video artist (David Thewlis), the Big Lebowski’s bizarre daughter (Julianne Moore) who accuses her father of stealing the ransom money from his own foundation for “miniature urban achievers,” a lurid Latin pederast who molests children (John Turturro, replete with purple spandex jumpsuit and a hairnet) and a flashy porno filmmaker (Ben Gazzara), knocking themselves unconscious in an effort to stir up some laughs in a plot that can’t even be described. Meanwhile, Mr. Bridges goes through the motions of playing slapstick as though he’s just been handed revised pages of dialogue before each scene commences. Comedy is not his forte, which he makes uncomfortably clear.

But the Coens (Joel directed and wrote the lumpy script with brother Ethan) seem oblivious to logic and reason, plunging on through sight gags, montages, dream sequences and even a Busby Berkeley production number with Mr. Bridges club-footing it through a line of chorus girls wearing bowling-pin headresses, sending up Hollywood and its films in the process. While the Dude leaps from Malibu to Pasadena, the Coens poke fun at everything and everyone along the way-neo-Nazi skinheads who cut off a woman’s toe, fatal heart attacks, cremations-all set for some inexplicable reason during the Persian Gulf War. Tasteless, vulgar and desperately unfunny, it’s a labored, asinine farce that finally crashes head-first into a brick wall, knocking its brains out. What were they on? It wasn’t Snapple.

Mr. Bridges has played this kind of beleaguered Everyman pothead before, but his gifts for idiosyncratic characterization are wasted here. Ramming into the scenery, choking on joints and spitting up an endless succession of nauseating White Russians, he’s not human enough to be real, or metaphorical enough to be a comic caricature. The Big Lebowski is loopier and livelier than Fargo, but the Coens have provided no emotional history to make the central character of the Dude sympathetic instead of a cardboard buffoon, so Mr. Bridges is just a small black hole at the center of an even bigger black hole. In their growing repertoire of offbeat work, the Coens have finally come up with a thumping catastrophe.

Modine Outwits Ambitious Blonde

Can two bright, attractive people surrounded by career anxiety and sexual temptation find true happiness and old-fashioned virtues in the contemporary chaos of New York’s fashion and entertainment industries? This is the dilemma faced by a sharp, witty cast in The Real Blonde , a charming second cousin to As Good as It Gets . Matthew Modine, an underrated, charismatic actor from the same “can’t find a good script” school as Michael Keaton, finally gets a chance to shine as Joe Finnegan, a penniless but dedicated actor with no agent and no connections who wants to do Arthur Miller plays but never gets any closer to art than stripping down for a Madonna music video.

Joe is in a long-term relationship with his girlfriend Mary (Catherine Keener), a makeup artist who is tired of paying the bills with the money she earns from fashion shoots. While Joe slaves away waiting on tables, his carefree pal Bob (Maxwell Caulfield) lands the lead in a soap opera and sleeps around in his search for a “real blonde” who doesn’t come out of a Clairol bottle. In their widening circle of friends, everyone knows frustration of one sort or another, including an oversexed soap star (Daryl Hannah); a curvaceous underwear model on every billboard in town (Bridgette Wilson); a tough casting agent (Kathleen Turner); a neurotic, temperamental fashion photographer (Marlo Thomas); and a horny shrink (Buck Henry). Joe almost succumbs to the Devil in the arms of Madonna’s body double (Elizabeth Berkley) and Mary is tempted by Denis Leary, an instructor in a self-defense class designed to release stress, rage and hostility toward men.

Somehow the alternatives to routine life with all of its worries never are as perfect as they seem in the movies. Even happy, hedonistic Bob discovers humiliation when he finally finds a real blonde and becomes a famous stud muffin with erection problems. Somehow, in a frantic world of bogus values, bad priorities and screwed-up ideals, everyone rediscovers the root definition of happily ever after. And all in the heart of little old New York. I’m not sure what the point of The Real Blonde is-or if it even makes one-but it’s nice to see loyalty and commitment pay off in a modern comedy, instead of the usual avarice and greed, and the first-rate writing and direction (both by Tom DeCillo) as well as the subtle, underplayed ensemble work by a swell, gifted cast add up to two sophisticated, highly enjoyable hours indeed.