A German Carrot Top Pursues Love on the Run

Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run combines pleasingly postmodern kinetic energy with exquisitely lyrical romanticism that creeps up on you–even as punk carrot-topped Lola (Franka Potente) runs nonstop through the streets of Berlin to save the life of her drug-dealing boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) after he has botched an exchange of narcotics for money. This isn’t the kind of story that is likely to attract the Masterpiece Theater faction or the art-house crowd, particularly since there is a tiny amount of facetious gunplay involved. Then there is the rebellious youth text and subtext, which cuts both ways with audiences. The older members shy away from punk protagonists, while the kiddie punk audience in America can’t be bothered with reading even minimal subtitles for a German-language film.

Who then can step up to make Run Lola Run a box-office hit even by art-house standards? Well, there are the lovers of film for its own sake, and people who pay attention to the virtually unanimous raves from the critics. How many of these discerning moviegoers there are, after the tepid box-office response to Alexander Payne’s universally praised Election , I cannot say. Now there was a case of a generationally well-balanced satire of high school teacher-student miscommunication falling between the cracks of generationally segregated audiences.

Still, Run Lola Run was reportedly a big popular hit in Germany, and one hopes that one’s gloomy commercial prognosis for the film in its current American release turns out to be unjustified. Even so, Run Lola Run restores one’s faith in the infinite renewability of the medium, and not simply through technological gimmicks, but, rather, through a psycho-socio-esthetic evolution of the one art form above all others that has enjoyed the undiminished capacity to change with the times without ever becoming dehumanized.

Lola is far from being a kickboxing feminist, but she doesn’t take any guff from her elders, either. For Mr. Tykwer, Ms. Potente’s Lola represents the rebellious new post-Helmut Kohl German generation unwilling to follow in the footsteps of its parents. I know we’ve heard the same song for the past three or four decades, but what is interesting about Lola and Manni is what was interesting in the Natalie Wood and James Dean characters in Nicholas Ray’s 1955 Rebel Without a Cause . Both pairs of lovers find their own private world without losing their love-sharing humanity, and in their different ways, and in different times, both movies are ultimately life-affirming, though Run Lola Run is clearly more lighthearted and more uncompromising in its rejection of parental figures.

My readers of all ages are urged to run to the box-office run. After all, who can resist a woman named Lola after Marlene Dietrich’s Lola Lola in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) and Martine Carol’s Lola Montès in Max Ophuls’ 1955 Lola Montès ? Despite her punk regalia, Ms. Potente is equal to the erotic and emotional generosity generated by her namesake predecessors.

These Are the People in Your Neighborhood

Mark Pellington’s Arlington Road , based on a screenplay by Ehren Kruger, bears more than a passing resemblance to two similar exercises in homicidal paranoia produced and directed by the late Alan J. Pakula (1928-1998), The Parallax View (1974) and Consenting Adults (1992). The Parallax View , if you recall, served as a delayed reaction to the Kennedy assassinations in the early and late 60’s, and tended to support the various conspiracy theories still circulating in the land. Consenting Adults thrust an unsuspecting couple into seductive proximity to a seemingly lecherous twosome next door, leading to a wife-swapping plot that culminated in a premeditated murder. Despite their first-rate casts, neither movie was completely successful, but neither aroused in me the hatred I felt when I witnessed Arlington Road at a recent critics’ screening. Even though I recognized the downbeat ending from Parallax View with the same disheartening triumph of what Hillary Clinton too accurately described as a right-wing conspiracy, I somehow felt that I was being fiendishly manipulated and tortured by the heartless plot twists in Arlington Road . Mr. Kruger’s original screenplay, recipient of the Nicholl Fellowship in screenwriting from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1996, is nothing if not devious as it develops the emotionally overloaded character of Jeff Bridges’ Michael Faraday, a recently widowed college professor and single parent of a troubled boy. We learn shortly that Faraday is still grieving over the recent death of his F.B.I. agent wife in a disastrous Waco-like raid on the mountain retreat of a nonfelonious gun collector. Faraday never tires of ranting to his students about the faulty intelligence-gathering and lack of accountability of Federal law enforcement authorities.

The picture actually begins with hallucinatory images of an adolescent boy (not Faraday’s) bleeding from some sort of firecracker accident. Faraday is driving along Arlington Road when he sees the boy staggering in the street. After taking him to the hospital, Faraday eventually meets the boy’s concerned parents, Oliver Lang (Tim Robbins) and Cheryl Lang (Joan Cusack). Though they live across the street from Faraday, he has never met them. Suddenly, we have the Consenting Adults situation without the sexual experimentation. In fact, Faraday can barely get it on with his attractive girlfriend Brooke Wolfe (Hope Davis), his former teaching assistant, who began sleeping with Faraday not too long after his wife’s untimely death. Brooke feels insecure in the relationship, both because the boy resents her replacing his mother, and because Faraday himself seems permanently mired in the injustice of his wife’s death. Let’s face it. Faraday is a complete mess. And though we don’t suspect it at the outset, he is being slowly but systematically ensnared in a spidery intrigue orchestrated by his outwardly friendly neighbors.

Right on schedule for this kind of ominous thriller, Faraday begins to suspect that his next-door neighbor is a domestic terrorist. Even after one incriminating fact after another about Lang’s mysterious past comes to light, Faraday is unable to persuade the authorities that something sinister is afoot. And no wonder. Faraday has not only been crying wolf too long and too often. He seems constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Warren Beatty’s doomed conspiracy-hunter in The Parallax View was a much cooler cat than the frenzied Faraday, and Pakula was much more detached from the human drama for the sake of the larger political and architectural picture than Mr. Pellington, who makes us agonize over Faraday’s desperately sweaty struggle to make sense of the chaos and evil engulfing him.

At the point when I realized beyond the shadow of a doubt that all the good guys were to be destroyed by the infinitely ingenious bad guys, I felt a dull thud in the pit of my stomach. Not only was evil triumphant, but its agents were diabolically clever enough to shift the blame to a crucified innocent.

The trick of the film is to confound our expectations by making Faraday not only hysterical, but also very humanly maladroit and quixotic, as well as heroically public-spirited. As an icon, Mr. Bridges has always been a guaranteed survivor against the greatest odds, and Mr. Robbins an eccentric champion of the liberal counterculture. Besides, Mr. Bridges, Mr. Robbins, Ms. Davis and Ms. Cusack are four of the most charming and talented personalities in pictures. If their characterizations had been more inept and less charismatic, I might have hated Arlington Road less. Hate is a word I almost never use, and an attitude I have great difficulty expressing. But there it is. I have to report what I see and feel at all costs. I may be completely alone on this one as far as my community of esteemed colleagues is concerned. So don’t take my word for it. See for yourself. At least I can rest easily knowing that I warned you.

The Dench Phenomenon

Franco Zeffirelli’s Tea With Mussolini , from the screenplay by John Mortimer and Mr. Zeffirelli, based on The Autobiography of Franco Zeffirelli , has been lingering a while, and is barely worth a look if only for a glimpse at no fewer than five divas of stage and screen from England and America. The “hottest” of these celebrated grandes dames at the moment is the celebrated Oscar-winning and Tony-winning Judi Dench, who is playing to packed houses on Broadway in Amy’s View , after wowing American movie audiences with her acid portrayals of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth over the past two years.

In England, she has been regularly winning stage and screen acting awards for the past 34 years. Indeed, I first saw her on screen in 1965 in Four in the Morning , and was much impressed with her, but I must say she has struck me since as a very marginal character actress on the screen. So it is, strangely, in Tea With Mussolini , in which Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith have the meatiest parts among the Brits, and Cher and Lily Tomlin represent the Yanks with gusto and panache, while Ms. Dench flutters around as a pathetic esthete with no talent of her own.

I am told that Ms. Dench recently appeared on The Charlie Rose Show and complained that Mr. Zeffirelli cut out two of her biggest and best scenes, but that she forgave him. Be that what it may, don’t go to Tea With Mussolini expecting to see Dame Judi steal the show. She doesn’t. Not that there is that much show to steal. Mr. Zeffirelli’s vision of late 30’s and 40’s Fascist Italy is not much more densely detailed than Roberto Benigni’s in Life Is Beautiful , and manages much less of an emotional payoff. Yet where else these days can you see five entertaining women of a certain age acting up a storm?