Unappreciated Bruce Willis, Most Reliable Guy in Showbiz?

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense materializes on the screen as an effectively understated and moodily engrossing ghost film with a surprisingly satisfying jolt at the end. Bruce Willis reminds me once again that, despite his generally bad press, he is the most reliable character lead in the business, perhaps lacking Gene Hackman’s range and Kevin Spacey’s flash. But I have lost count of the number of Bruce Willis vehicles that would have been unwatchable if he hadn’t been in them. Indeed, he reminds me of nobody so much as Robert Mitchum in his unappreciated heyday, when he was dismissed as dull and expressionless simply because he didn’t tear a passion to tatters at every opportunity. With Mr. Mitchum, as with Mr. Willis, less was never more. But take a look sometime at Mitchum’s masterly acting in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), Out of the Past (1947) and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), and tell me if he was ever given his due.

In The Sixth Sense , Mr. Willis plays a child psychologist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe, who is sitting at the top of his profession in Philadelphia, the home base also of Mr. Shyamalan, writer-director of Praying With Anger and Wide Awake , two films I have never seen, though the titles alone reflect a mental-spiritual predilection that may explain some of the quiet strangeness of The Sixth Sense in the currently noisy and overstated movie scene. Thus, after an initial burst of violence in which Dr. Crowe is shot by a former child patient grown up into homicidal and suicidal madness who then kills himself, the rest of the movie, heart and soul, is devoted to the slow recuperation of Dr. Crowe from the traumatic loss of self-confidence.

He takes on the doubt-ridden treatment of an 8-year-old boy named Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), whose divorced mother, Lynn Sear (Toni Collette), is concerned about the boy’s strange antisocial behavior both in school and at home. The theme of divorce and its disruptive impact upon children is echoed in Cole’s case history by that of Dr. Crowe’s adult assailant and suicide, Vincent Gray (Donnie Wahlberg). Yet, the two cases diverge spectacularly when Cole finally reveals that he sees and hears dead people, whose bizarre grimaces and movements terrify him. We get to see these ghosts as well with a minimum of special effects trickery. Meanwhile, Dr. Crowe’s marriage to art gallery owner Anna Crowe (Olivia Williams) is gravely threatened by his lack of attention.

What Mr. Willis brings to his role is an extraordinary patience and stillness, illuminating the mental processes of Dr. Crowe in his laser-beam penetration of a troubled little boy’s psyche. The gaining and keeping of trust is uppermost in Dr. Crowe’s mind and method. In the end, the little boy is helping his doctor as much as the doctor is helping him, and their necessary final parting is indeed sweet sorrow. Along the way, however, the dimensions of the two female characters keep shrinking almost to the vanishing point, and the very gifted Ms. Collette and Ms. Williams as Cole’s mother and Dr. Crowe’s wife are left almost completely in the dark about what has transpired between Cole and Dr. Crowe. A process of healing is implied for both women, but their emotional warmth is inadequately projected. Still, at least The Sixth Sense is one of the rare current movies about healing rather than harming.

The Second Time Around Is Never Like They Say It Is

John McTiernan’s The Thomas Crown Affair , from a screenplay by Leslie Dixon and Kurt Wimmer, based on a story by Alan R. Trustman, comes out at a time when people are so starved for old-fashioned glamour and elegance that they’ll embrace this feature-length coming attraction as the real thing. Not that the original 1968 version with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway was any world beater, but McQueen and Ms. Dunaway (a psychiatrist in the remake) at least had a smidgen of chemistry together even without the toplessness and nudity of the 90′s to throw some logs on the fire. Pierce Brosnan is, as always, so lightweight as a screen personality that he makes Roger Moore look substantial. As for Rene Russo, so appealing in action movies, she is unable, except in one nightclub scene with a virtually see-through gown, to project the effortless ease of the stylishly shady lady.

She has received a great deal of publicity for daring to do sex scenes at the ripe old age of 45. The implication is that the moguls of the sexist 90′s have been unusually cruel and inhuman to middle-aged actresses. Yet if you look back to the supposed Golden Age of women’s pictures in the 30′s and 40′s, few actresses on the far side of 40 played anything but mother roles, and many achieved that status by the age of 35. Life magazine marveled in 1943 that a 38-year-old Jean Arthur could convincingly play a heavy petting scene on a Washington, D.C., stoop with Joel McCrea in George Stevens’ The More the Merrier . The cream of the jest was that McCrea himself was 38 years old. Yet, double standards and all, what makes today’s movie moguls sexist is not so much the age-casting of actresses, but the advanced ages of the male stars who still play bedroom scenes on the screen. Let’s face it: The camera is cruel; it makes everyone look 10 years older and 10 pounds heavier. That’s why the most sensual actresses look in real life as if they lived entirely on carrot juice.

Denis Leary takes top honors in the cast for acting a little, while the two leads spend most of their time posing with a variety of luxury items. Mr. Brosnan’s gentleman thief seems to exalt needless virtuosity over larcenous efficiency. I hate show-offs, particularly when it comes to something as crucial to the capitalist system as stealing.

What Did Deep Throat Ever Do to Hollywood?

Andrew Fleming’s Dick , from a screenplay by Mr. Fleming and Sheryl Longin, plops down on the screen as a thoroughly misguided, terminally unfunny fantasy-farce-satire of the Watergate scandal. I can’t help suspecting that the only reason that the script got the go-ahead from the powers that be was that someone in the decision-making process decided that today’s kids would get orgasms from the obscene ambiguity of the film’s title, with extra mileage from the “true” identity of “Deep Throat” from the Woodward-Bernstein journalistic saga of the dethroning of Dick Nixon. And sure enough the last sentence of the script manages to combine “Dick” with “sucks.”

Dick Nixon resigned from office in 1974, and this is 1999. Twenty-five years is a long time for a topical satire to keep its freshness and snap. The kids don’t remember the names of all the players, and we graybeards still chuckle over the hilariously glowering Nixon of Dan Aykroyd, the heavily and commandingly accented Kissinger of the late John Belushi and the thoughtfully fatuous David Eisenhower of Bill Murray on the70′s SaturdayNightLive shows that were contemporaneous with the Watergate frolics in Washington. Dan Hedaya makes a good Nixon until the script makes him out to be not merely guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors, but mean to his dog, his wife and his daughters. This excess of satiric overkill made even this yellow-dog Democrat a bit uneasy. As much as I rejoiced at Tricky Dick’s downfall at the time, I regarded Julie Nixon’s unwavering devotion to her father as worthy of an Antigone.

The biggest problem with Dick , however, is that its two ditsy teenage heroines are played by Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams with so much tongue-in-cheek smugness that they kill all the laughs. Their exploits are performed with such embarrassing clumsiness that the plot collapses around them. To top it off, they manage to giggle their way into political correctness on the Vietnam War, and on the benevolent effects of the hippie drug culture on American life and even on the cause of world peace. They are faux-naïfs to a fault, even to the point of mocking the euphemisms of all authority figures.

To put a point to it, Dick is no Election . It is as mean-spirited between the generations as Election is fair-minded. What remains a little surprising is all the ridicule heaped on Bob Woodward (Will Ferrell) and Carl Bernstein (Bruce McCulloch) with the one overly extended sight joke of the exaggerated Mutt-and-Jeff pairing of the two journalists, Woodward towering over the diminutive Bernstein.

Out of the Closet And Onto the Screen

Patrice Chéreau’s Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train , from a screenplay by Danièle Thompson, Mr. Chéreau and Pierre Trividic, based on an original idea by Ms. Thompson, unwinds as one of the most forceful reminders that what Oscar Wilde once designated “the love that dare not speak its name” has now burst out of the closet onto the screen with more and more challenges for critics of all sexual persuasions hitherto permitted to be politely “tolerant” and “understanding” in mealy-mouthed variations of Terence’s “nothing human is alien to me.” This won’t do anymore for an intelligently uninhibited confrontation of sexual diversity and carnal warfare like Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train .

Having gotten that off my chest, I don’t know what else to say about a film I had trouble following and understanding. There are 16 characters involved in a funeral cortège from Paris to Limoges for the burial of a famous painter named Jean-Baptiste, and briefly seen in flashbacks in the acting persona of Jean-Louis Trintignant, who also plays the painter’s very much alive shoe-merchant brother Lucien. There is a house in Limoges that becomes a bone of contention. There is a troubled marriage. There are noisily volatile homosexual triangles, bisexual intrigues, an H.I.V.-positive diagnosis, and far above the fray is the mischievous and malignant spirit of the painter who continues to torment his supposed friends, lovers and admirers from beyond the grave by herding them together into a brawling band of betrayers and betrayed.

I must beg off being more specific. The film is too floridly demonstrative and diffuse for my taste. The neuroses of its characters are too exotic. The narrative is too muddled, the mise en scène too furiously busy. I pass.

May I Recommend Instead

If you’ve never seen Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937), Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) and Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974), see them at once, ahead of all current releases. If you’ve seen them once or more, I don’t have to tell you that these imperishable classics can be seen again and again over the years with undiminished enjoyment.