A No-Star General Gets a Discharge … At Grandmother’s, Guilt and Lasagna

A No-Star General Gets a Discharge

At the end of the critics’ screening of the new John Travolta military thriller The General’s Daughter , engraved pleas were passed out to all the ink-stained wretches who saw it before the general public, imploring us not to reveal the film’s multitude of surprises to our readers. It’s an unnecessary caution. This preposterous movie is so clogged with red herrings, plot twists, extraneous characters, confusing snafus and mechanical cross-purposes that I wouldn’t know how to spoil it for you even if I wanted to. The General’s Daughter is one of those rare films that manages the dubious distinction of being both contrived and incoherent at the same time.

For the first 90 minutes of this vigorous but bewildering drama, be forewarned: No matter which subplot interests you, it will have nothing to do with the final solution. Mr. Travolta is introduced as a tough, wisecracking undercover cop dispatched to an Army base in the steamy swamps of Georgia to stop an illegal arms deal. The gratuitous violence that follows might make Charlton Heston change his mind about guns, but only serves the purpose of showing off the star’s charms. Mr. Travolta fakes a Southern drawl with “Goll-ee dang!” and delivers a basket of bath oils to a sexy, shapely captain (Leslie Stefanson) after she stops to change his flat tire. It’s a long, overheated prologue that leads nowhere. The real case begins when the lovely captain turns up naked, spread-eagle, tied to a stake, tortured, mutilated and murdered in the middle of a training field. When Mr. Travolta discovers the beautiful murder victim is also the daughter of the general who has been his hero since the war in Vietnam, he turns into a two-fisted cross between Sherlock Holmes, Sigmund Freud and the Green Berets.

As a labyrinth of clues unravels, Madeleine Stowe emerges as the Watson to Mr. Travolta’s Holmes. She plays a rape counselor and fellow cop who still smarts from an old love affair with him in Brussels. (“We’ll always have Brussels,” quips Mr. Travolta, parodying Casablanca .) Reluctantly, the mismatched warrant officers are forced to team again, uncovering one kinky clue after the next as the investigation gets murkier and more lurid, scene by scene. Worse, the crusty old general (James Cromwell, from Babe ) gives them a time limit before the F.B.I. gets wind of the crime and turns the camp into a civilian battle circus. He smells of incest. Then there’s the S-M sex dungeon in the victim’s basement and the porno tapes of men in masks, providing every man on the base with a motive for homicide. What was the gorgeous captain up to? Who were her clients? And how did anyone find time for things like parade drills and flag salutes? As soon as the film introduces one question, it moves on to another, providing no answers along the way.

Enter James Woods, a quirky colonel with deviant personality kinks of his own, and Timothy Hutton, the provost marshal who ambushes the cops every time they think they’re on to something big. Generals, adjutants, faithful colleagues and old friends, married enlisted men, even the local sheriff–everyone’s a suspect, in a web of lies and cover-ups that leads all the way back to a sex scandal at West Point. As the film introduces a battalion of tangential suspects, hidden agendas and evidence tampering, Mr. Travolta’s chin hardens, his blue eyes narrow in meaningful focus, and there’s a lot of “kick-ass” mayhem, suicide, tabloid gossip and X-rated raunch to watch. I won’t deny I found some of it fascinating, but for its occasional jolts of adrenaline and all of its souped-up dialogue, the film is much ado (and agog) about nothing. The denouement is absurd, and the film’s attempts to draw attention to bigger issues (sexism in the military, the value of enlisted women who deserve respect, the military code of ethics that protects soldiers with silence, and the criminal lengths to which the Army will go to protect its reputation and advance the career of its officers) seem laughable. How can you contemplate issues in a movie that spends more time on the brutally provocative and graphic details than on the issues themselves? The General’s Daughter wants you to think it cares about feminist principles, but it sells smut and violence with more lascivious self-interest than the issues they lead up to. It’s like the aftermath of a trial, when the gruesome evidence has more impact on the nauseated jury than the verdict.

Based on Nelson DeMille’s potboiler novel, the script is co-authored by William Goldman, who regularly attacks the crummy state of Hollywood screenwriting and bashes critics in the bargain. It’s curious that he is not above providing a ghastly gang rape, an assortment of old men with a deviant lust for young women and at least one old man with twisted obsessions for young men, jerking the audience around in the process while demonstrating no point of view about the issues it raises. The result is nothing more than the formula stuff this movie pretends to look down its nose at–let’s make them sick to their stomachs and give them something to think about. Hokey and cynical, The General’s Daughter is just another creepy, inconsequential thriller with snappy, pointless one-liners upstaged by fine actors who outclass their material. John Travolta deserves better, and so do we.

At Grandmother’s, Guilt and Lasagna

Over the River and Through the Woods , to grandmother’s house they go … and go … to see an Off-Broadway play with a built-in, audience-friendly appeal few plays can match. Some of the audience members seated near me at the John Houseman Theater had seen this play by Joe DiPietro as many as six times, and now they have a new reason to see it all over again. The reason is Kaye Ballard, who brings her generosity of spirit and a heart the size of her girdle to the role of Aida, an Italian grandmother who believes in the Three F’s: Family, Faith and Food. Especially food. For Aida, no problem in life is so daunting it can’t be solved with lasagna and a fruit bowl. Aida has a talent for mothering you to death, and so does Ms. Ballard. She even sings a little. Nothing big, like the show-stopping numbers that made her one of Broadway’s most durable stars in musicals, but even on a family chorus of “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,” her magic is contagious.

Ms. Ballard is not doing a one-woman show. She is part of a grand and ingratiating ensemble in an autobiographical portrait of the author’s Italian grandparents–two sets of them, in fact, who took turns raising him. He’s called Nick in the play (played with baffled but endearing near-hysteria by the excellent Paul Urcioli). The action takes place in the home of Aida and her long-suffering, overindulged husband, Frank (Ralph Lucarelli), where, every Sunday for years, Nick has taken the bus to Hoboken to dine with both sets of his grandparents, all four of them with quirky, distinctive personalities. Loud, nagging and exasperating, they have one thing in common–their passion for Nick. The play centers on the chaos that ensues when Nick announces he’s moving to Seattle for a job promotion. They give guilt like a cashier gives change.

The play often seems like an old-fashioned sitcom for time-warped senior citizens (they think a vegetarian is an animal doctor, a psychiatrist is a man who cures bunions, and there’s one hilarious Trivial Pursuit game that could drive a person crazy), but the writing is both funny and poignant. It’s easy to see why it strikes deep chords of compassion in people who have seen easier, more graceful days and long for a return to basic human values. It raises intelligent questions about where to draw the line between personal growth and responsibility to the people who love you unconditionally, and the outcome is not completely rosy, but these are proud, good, spiritual people who make even the burden of coping with fate enviable.

In addition to the great Kaye Ballard, who admittedly bases her characterization of Aida on her own Italian grandmother, the other cast members are excellent, especially the other grandparents, Nunzio and Emma, played by Allen Swift, a funny man shaped like a bowling pin with a look of terminal baby colic, and the sensational Marie Lillo, a human graduate course in comic timing extraordinaire. They fit like retired vaudevillians from the Orpheum circuit into the kind of realistic play (rarely produced anymore) that comes fitted with flowered wallpaper, venetian blinds, chintz pillows and potted geraniums on the front porch. Over the River and Through the Woods has been running since October, and Kaye Ballard is leaving the cast the first week in July, so get there fast. Largely overlooked by the press but fondly adopted by audiences who return with friends, children and picnic lunches, it’s got a survival factor that more shows could learn a lesson from. It’s also got a heart as big as Kaye Ballard’s, and that’s something this town needs as bad as a championship for the New York Knicks.