Two Men We’ve Loved, Hopeful Yet World-Weary

Sadly, in terms of the merciless camera, Robert Redford and Warren Beatty will never see sweet 60 again, which these days usually doesn’t inhibit good-looking male stars from scoring with chicks on the screen. But what is a little unusual about these two Hollywood heartthrobs is that each has seen the handwriting on the wall, and each decided a long time ago that he wanted to be a force in the industry and society at large, rather than just another pretty face.

Mr. Redford’s The Horse Whisperer , from a screenplay by Eric Roth and Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Nicholas Evans, is by a convenient coincidence opening on May 15, the same day as Mr. Beatty’s Bulworth , from a screenplay by Mr. Beatty and Jeremy Pikser, and a story by Mr. Beatty. Mr. Redford and Mr. Beatty have each won an Oscar for directing a “serious” film, in consecutive years no less: Mr. Redford for Ordinary People (1980), Mr. Beatty for Reds (1981). Both have escaped the dismal fate of being typecast exclusively as great lovers, though both have enjoyed their share of memorable on-screen conquests. Still, even now when they are past 60, they are still in the hunt, albeit halfheartedly, for juicy female flesh: the talented Kristin Scott Thomas in The Horse Whisperer and the talented Halle Berry in Bulworth .

Nonetheless, Mr. Redford and Mr. Beatty are wise enough to submerge their still eye-popping charismas in character parts with more past than future in the games of life and love. In a sense, they have both become spiritualized images of weariness with the world as it is, for the sake of the world as it could be and should be. Mr. Redford’s Tom Booker, the supposed horse whisperer, a description he modestly disavows, is more a healer and a shaman in the ancient rituals of horse and human seeking a modus vivendi after eons of serving as the hunted and the hunter. By contrast, Mr. Beatty’s Senator J. Billington Bulworth begins as a buffoonishly corrupt politician seeking renomination in the 1996 Democratic California primary, and is farcically transformed, largely through black rap sessions in South Central Los Angeles, into a fearless foe of the special interests that have taken over both political parties through their control of the media. At times, though, Bulworth seems to be nothing more than a cultural hangover and leftover from the supposedly radicalized 60′s and 70′s, when drug-induced hallucinations masqueraded as political action. No American movie I can remember, however, has been so explicit about the stranglehold of big business on the political process, to the point that Bulworth becomes that rarity of rarities, an attack on Clintonism and its seemingly endless compromises and cowardices from the left instead of the right.

My first reaction to The Horse Whisperer was that its basic material was considerably inflated by scenic grandiosity for its own sake. My first reaction to Bulworth was that its execution was so ragged and disorganized that I suspected that Mr. Beatty and his collaborators were on something when they made it. Oddly, The Horse Whisperer seemed too well made, whereas Bulworth didn’t seem well made enough. Finally, however, I decided that though neither film is for the ages, both are well worth seeing for subtle as well as for obvious reasons.

I haven’t read the novel by English-born and bred Nicholas Evans, from which the movie The Horse Whisperer is derived, but the color purple seems to have pervaded the project from the beginning. And for all the inspiration and support he has provided to the Sundance ethos as a formidable alternative to current Hollywood mainstream thinking, Mr. Redford seems drawn here, as he was in the case of A River Runs Through It (1992), to a grown-up niceness and nobility of characters in the throes of nature worship. Mired as I am in the miasma of movie malignancy, I can forgive Mr. Redford for laying on the glorious landscape a bit thick.

As for his casting, I would walk a mile on or off a camel to see Kristin Scott Thomas in anything, and she is especially good here as an English-born hot-shot New York magazine editor, Annie Graves, whose workaholic ways have caused her to neglect both her lawyer husband, Robert (Sam Neill), and her restless, horse-loving 13-year-old daughter Grace (Scarlett Johansson). When Grace is involved in a ghastly, almost surreal accident involving two horses, their two young girl riders, a huge truck and a snowswept forest trail, she loses her best friend and part of her own leg. The stunt work here in upstate New York, and, later, in Montana, is alone worth the price of admission, as is the powerhouse casting of Dianne Wiest, Chris Cooper and Broadway and Off-Broadway sensation Cherry Jones in subsidiary roles. For almost three hours, there is not a false note struck in the very slowly developing relationships.

After the accident, no one really does anything irrevocable. Both the girl and her beloved horse are somehow cured of their fright. Annie does not leave her comparatively humdrum husband–Sam Neill humdrum, even almost 20 years after My Brilliant Career (1979)–for the free-range spirit incarnated in Tom Booker. Yet the passionate love between Annie and Tom is rendered with an exquisitely erotic tactility such as we have seldom seen since movies completely abandoned the yearning, burning metaphors of repression for an increasingly boring skin game. With Annie and Tom, it is no more than the lingering touch on a lady’s riding boot in a stirrup, and the non-invasive touch of a partner in a slow dance. In the end, we come to know why Annie has to stay with her gravely handicapped daughter during the difficult years when she is growing up to an uncertain future. No one has to say anything. We just know. These are thoroughly decent people, and they still exist, if only in Mr. Redford’s dream projects. We are not talking postmodern or even modern here, but the best kind of old-fashioned. And this is not to overlook the splendid cinegenicity of horses, and the insights they give us into the hearts and souls of young girls.

The big problem with Bulworth is that its reach far exceeds its grasp. For this one $30 million picture, Mr. Beatty was free to do whatever he wanted without studio interference, but not because he was considered too “hot” to contradict. After the failure of Glenn Gordon Caron’s Love Affair (1994), comparable in its big-star deflation of Mr. Beatty to Sydney Pollack’s Havana (1990) of Mr. Redford, Mr. Beatty found himself with a contractual free ride because of an unfulfilled studio commitment after his Dick Tracy (1990). There are many talented and funny people, black and white, in the cast–Oliver Platt, Josh Malina, Jack Warden, Christine Baranski, Paul Sorvino, Richard Sarafian, Don Cheadle, Isaiah Washington, Sean Astin, Laurie Metcalf and Wendell Pierce, in addition to Mr. Beatty and Ms. Berry.

Unfortunately, the script is clogged with windy rhetoric and sputtering exasperation rather than being studded with witty lines and humorous situations. That I agree with much of the rhetoric, even in the form of rap doggerel, does not relieve me of my suspicion that I am watching an indifferently performed but pointedly written cabaret act rather than a believable movie. The fool’s paradise in which we are now reportedly living will have to come crashing down on us all for Bulworth to be hailed as uncanny prophecy, but then no one will bother to wonder if Mr. Beatty can tap into first-week black audiences for Bulworth , when these audiences have indicated in the past a clear preference for simplistically violent and sexy melodramas, rather than political statements, however correct, populist and radically intentioned.

A Double Take on Henry Jaglom

Henry Jaglom’s Déjà Vu , from a screenplay by Mr. Jaglom and Victoria Foyt, starts off slowly and mysteriously as a meandering travelogue from Tel Aviv (or is it Jerusalem?) to Paris to the white cliffs of Dover–both scenically and musically–to London to New York, and back to London. It got better and clearer as it went along until finally it captured me, at least, with its unabashedly lyrical and mystical romance. Ms. Foyt plays a heroine with the courage of her convictions, and Stephen Dillane supports her with a cool stoicism that keeps the coincidences from seeming too contrived. Vanessa Redgrave, Anna Massey and Rachel Kempson bring unexpected feelings into play as the great British actresses are prone to do. Mr. Jaglom has come up with his most satisfying and least narcissistic entertainment in years, and as one of his most notorious detractors in the past, it gives me great pleasure to recant, at least for the moment.

Now, the Movie About Nothing

Bruno Dumont’s Life of Jesus ( La Vie de Jésus ) is not to be taken literally on the titular level. The epileptic anti-hero Freddy (David Douche) is anything but Christ-like with his pudgy pit-bull face, his murderously anti-Arab prejudice, his incipient skinhead status as a small-town loafer who spends his time with his pals on noisy motorcycles recycled from old Hell’s Angels flicks. There are interludes with a local marching band in Dunkirk, France, to which Freddy and his gang belong; Freddy seems to be the only one of the gang with a steady girlfriend, Marie (Marjorie Cottreel), who seems much too pretty and sensible for him.

Mr. Dumont sees life almost entirely from Freddy’s glazed point of view, and it is a dismal vision indeed, with a few metaphors of tenderness like a pet finch that sings only when spring arrives. There is a spurt of violence, more a spasm, really, and we are left only with Freddy, inarticulate to the end. I didn’t get it. Mr. Dumont doesn’t blame anyone in particular, but it would seem that it is expressively fallacious to portray boredom boringly.