A Once-Upon-a-Time Fable With the Wrong Cast

Jay Roach’s Mystery, Alaska , from a screenplay by David E. Kelley and Sean O’Byrne, was not actually shot in Alaska but in an artificial, set-simulated town nestled in the real town of Canmore in Alberta, Canada. According to the production notes, production designer Rusty Smith chose this location for all the lavish make-believe construction to satisfy Mr. Roach’s “vision” of purity and isolation “inspired by a picture from National Geographic magazine showing a remote, desolate community at the base of a huge mountain in the middle of nowhere…” Unfortunately, that is where the movie goes: nowhere.

I must confess that I was expecting more from a movie endowed so richly with acting talent in the personae of Russell Crowe, Hank Azaria, Mary McCormack, Lolita Davidovitch, Ron Eldard, Colm Meaney, Maury Chaykin, Michael McKean, Judith Ivey and not least the resurgent Burt Reynolds. What a cast! And then there was the prominent participation of Mr. Kelley, the current white knight of the Emmys for his creation of L.A. Law , Chicago Hope , Ally McBeal , Picket Fences , The Practice , among other television programs festooned with wit and panache. Director Jay Roach was still an unknown quantity, despite his having hit the commercial jackpot with the two Austin Powers bonanzas, but what could possibly go wrong with all these gifted people on the premises? My first premonition came when I and my regular companion found ourselves all alone in a very large screening room. Were we the last to know?

Still, I stayed with the film as long as I could, hoping against hope that it was very slowly building up to something, anything. I expected its hockey plot to be as hokey and inspirational about hockey as Hoosiers (1986) had been about basketball. What I didn’t expect was the almost complete lack of tension and suspense and even common-sensical reality in the spectacle. Not that I minded the movie, particularly. It was pleasant enough to watch in an empty screening room. And then it hit me that I was watching a once-upon-a-time fable with the wrong cast and too many production values.

The town of Mystery is introduced as a veritable Shangri-La of ice hockey. On the surface, the people seem to cherish their quaintness and smallness, going so far as to resist the invasion of chain stores–though why even the most imperialistic chain would want to expand into Mystery is a bigger mystery than Mystery itself. The town has a judge (Mr. Reynolds), a sheriff (Mr. Crowe), a lawyer (Mr. Chaykin) but nothing much else besides overgrown hockey players, restive wives and a few children for atmosphere. From time to time, someone cracks a joke about there being no economy and seemingly no entertainment besides the Saturday-afternoon hockey game.

At this point I should mention that hockey is far from being my favorite spectator sport, ranking just ahead of arm-wrestling. I know there are all kinds of strategies, as there are in soccer, but both sports are bedeviled by the same fallacy that makes tic-tac-toe less challenging than chess. If one team is determined to prevent the other team from scoring, all it has to do is gather all its players around the net to stifle the opposing offense. That’s why the scores are most often so ridiculously low. I know I am missing something esoteric about both sports, but there are times when I enjoy wallowing in my ignorance.

Still, I cannot deny that ice hockey on a frozen pond in a mountainous never-never land is a beautiful sight to behold, just so long as I don’t have to be there, suffering through Arctic temperatures. That may be why I have never warmed to Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922). The point is that the creators of Mystery, Alaska have inflicted their characters with a set of sitcom problems and crises that could be solved simply by moving out of the wintry setting for an ice-hockey operetta into a warmer and livelier location.

The first crisis occurs when 32-year-old sheriff John Biebe (Mr. Crowe) is told by Mayor Scott Pitcher (Mr. Meaney) that he has lost a step and is therefore too slow to play for Mystery in its Saturday game. A faster-skating 17-year-old kid will replace John. John is inconsolable, but he keeps his stiff upper lip. His marriage to Donna (Ms. McCormack) has not been going well for a long time, and when her old flame from high school, Charles Danner (Mr. Azaria), returns to Mystery on a media helicopter to announce that he has made a deal to bring the New York Rangers to play the local hockey team, all hell breaks loose. There is a heated town meeting in which opposing viewpoints are vociferously expressed. Talk about lack of suspense. Why spend all that money in the middle of nowhere if you weren’t going to stage a choked-throat spectacle of underdogs against a professional team that, incidentally, hasn’t been doing too well lately? When Donna starts smiling provocatively at Danner for auld lang syne, John becomes jealous.

Meanwhile, Mr. Pitcher confronts his own midlife crisis when he discovers that his wife Mary Jane (Ms. Davidovitch) has been sleeping with one of the young hockey players. For his part, Judge Burns (Mr. Reynolds) has a very difficult relationship with his underachieving, hockey-crazy son “Birdie” (Scott Grimes). Deep down, everyone in the town is good at heart, and every problem is not so much resolved as dissolved in a stream of good will from the locals and the intruders as well. With all the malignancy in mainstream movies, one would think that Mystery, Alaska would sweep into town as welcome relief. Instead, it drowns in a sea of unearned sweetness.

I knew the movie was in trouble when the only character I sympathized with was a media bitch the audience was supposed to laugh at for running inside to warm her frozen nose. I know I would have done the same thing. As I said, I hate the cold. But even more, I regret that so many likable performers were wasted on a project that was fatally unreal and unexciting from its original conception.

Heroic Resistance or Shameful Collaboration?

Claude Berri’s Lucie Aubrac , based on the novel Outwitting the Gestapo by Lucie Aubrac, takes place in Lyon in 1943 and is more or less based on fact. Mr. Berri grew up with firsthand experiences of the Nazi and Vichy collaborations during the German occupation of France, and of the Holocaust that accompanied it. Ever since Marcel Ophüls’ The Sorrow and the Pity (1971), France and its cinema have lived in the shadow of history’s accusatory gaze. Mr. Berri was clearly one of the good guys, but the question remains about how many others in France truly resisted the Nazis, and how early they joined the ranks of the resistance. The role of the Communist Party in the resistance, which began only after Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, is another controversial issue that even The Sorrow and the Pity did not address fully. Hence, Mr. Berri cannot be singled out for not exploring the tantalizing ambiguities surrounding so many life-and-death intrigues in this still murky period.

Still, Lucie Aubrac suffers from a certain lethargy in its telling of one of the heroic success stories of the resistance. It is not so much the fault of Carole Bouquet, who plays Lucie, nor of Daniel Auteuil, who plays Lucie’s imprisoned and then liberated husband Raymond, that their adventure is not more compelling. Perhaps too much time has passed for the old passions to be felt as strongly as they once were. Perhaps Mr. Berri is too close to the material to take the necessary melodramatic liberties with the facts of the case to generate more tension and suspense.

As far as I know, Ms. Aubriac is still alive, and in communication with Mr. Berri. She did nothing to be ashamed of in her clever maneuvers to set her husband free. To put it as delicately as possible, there was no aria from Tosca to accompany her deployment of her womanly charms or feminine wiles. She merely deceived the infamous Klaus Barbie and his Gestapo associates as to her true identity and that of her husband. Indeed, she exploited a legalistic propriety which the bad guys honored and respected.

But let’s face it, when you cast Ms. Bouquet, the beautifully sensual icon of Luis Buñuel in That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) and Bertrand Blier in Too Beautiful for You (1989), we are somewhat guiltily anticipating at least a hint of hanky-panky with the wicked Nazis. Would Raymond accept Lucie’s necessary sacrifice with a generous heart, or would he, like all sexist males, cease to respect her? I know this imaginary synopsis sounds worse than Mr. Berri’s actual film, but there is a moral lurking there somewhere. Mr. Berri is too goody-goody for his own good. He has some interesting things to say about the nuanced behavior that falls somewhere in the shade between the beacons of heroic resistance and shameful collaboration. But Lucie Aubrac never comes alive with the fire of dramatic discourse. It is all too neat and noble.

A French Feast

The New York Film Festival is off and running with a roster of impending releases that should enrich what is left of this century’s last cinematic year. Pascal Bonitzer’s Rien Sur Robert deserves an American distributor, if it hasn’t gotten one yet, if only to regale us neglected, self-pitying, increasingly persecuted American intellectuals. How many movies can casually drop names like Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway and Milan Kundera without having them land with a dull thud?

I felt a special affection for the marvelous central character, a film critic who committed the professional sin of reviewing a movie he had not seen, played by Fabrice Luchini. He is punished in a hilarious dinner scene with his old college professor, who denounces him for his lack of depth and conviction. He is cuckolded by his eternally disenchanted girlfriend (Sandrine Kiberlain), who insists on describing her infidelity in excruciating detail. Ms. Kiberlain plays an exasperating character with exquisite sang-froid. Mr. Luchini’s character finally is almost ensnared by a curiously volatile creature, played unpredictably by Valentina Cervi.

This is not an easy movie to encompass. Its moods change abruptly. Its projection of a Parisian intellectual’s paranoia begins as a funny joke and ends as a savage jest. And Michel Piccoli is on hand to provide a self-parody as a mentor gone mad.