Beholder : A 98-Pound Hitchcock

Stephan Elliott’s Eye of the Beholder , from Mr. Elliott’s screenplay, does not work as an obsession-oriented thriller by any stretch of the critical imagination. Yet, it is so playfully and cheerfully derivative that it has started a parlor game among even its most censorious detractors to determine what previous suspense classic it most resembles. Mr. Elliott himself coyly dedicates the film to the “filmmakers that inspired him: for Hal, Tex, Francis, Federico, Hitch, Chuck, Walter, Steven and Jacques.”

Most critics have zeroed in on “Hitch” as the primary inspiration for Eye of the Beholder , particularly for the Master’s Vertigo (1958), the obsession movie to end obsession movies. Mr. Elliott not only goes to San Francisco at one point in the pursuit of Ashley Judd’s Joanna Eris, a femme fatale both literally and figuratively, he even uses a comically noisy bell tower as a setting. The pursuer, in this case, is Ewan McGregor’s the Eye, an embassy surveillance agent, who does not so much want to catch and punish Joanna for her homicidal activities, he simply wants to watch her night and day, and eventually keep her out of harm’s way even if it means shooting it out with the police. The big problem is that the Eye is just as crazy as the woman he is stalking. Consequently, the audience is cast adrift with no raisonneur in sight.

James Stewart’s Scottie in Vertigo hovered near the edge of madness in his attempt to transform Kim Novak’s working girl Judy into the romantic ideal of Ms. Novak’s otherworldly Madeleine. But when push came to shove, Scottie recognized the difference between right and wrong, and did not countenance a coldblooded murder as a fair price for his passion. Actually, Eye of the Beholder is closer to Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), in which the Tippi Hedren title character is driven by a childhood trauma to prey on lecherous men with a variety of wigs and disguises, though she only takes their money and not their lives. The Sean Connery character, who finally subdues her, freely admits that he himself is not entirely normal. In this respect, Ms. Judd comes much closer than Ms. Hedren ever did to exert the kind of star power that makes an audience go along with the feeblest motivation.

Of course, we have come a long way from the 50′s and 60′s to the 90′s and beyond in terms of normalizing the most bizarre behavior, Mr. Elliott’s previous film, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) would have been virtually inconceivable as a mainstream entertainment 30 or 40 years earlier. The point is that Mr. Elliott may be sophisticated enough to treat the genre classics he professes to admire with a degree of indulgent amusement. In this instance, he may have outsmarted himself by depriving his audience of any moral leverage.

What Hitch knew intuitively was that audiences had to like and understand a character before they could share the guilt of his vices. The Eye and Joanna are likable enough in the iconic personae of Mr. McGregor and Ms. Judd, but the characters they play seem to come from somewhere out in left field, and when they finally get together on an Alaskan icebank it is a meeting of dramatic ciphers. We just don’t care.

After Super Sunday , A Déjà Vu

Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday , from a screenplay by John Logan and Mr. Stone, based on a story by Daniel Pyne and Mr. Logan, turns out to be one of last year’s happiest surprises even though it has been discounted somewhat by the acerbic critical faction that exalts the mean and the ugly at the expense of the warm and the sweet. If truth be told, I lean in the opposite direction though I am aware that a very thin line separates sensible sentiment from slobbering sentimentality.

I had not gotten around to seeing Any Given Sunday until just before last month’s riveting Super Bowl had played itself out to its last tortured yard. For a long time beforehand, I had grown weary of both Mr. Stone’s supercharged cinematic hysteria, and pro football’s breeding of 300-pound pumped-up-and speeded-up armored projectiles targeted at quarterbacks on the radar screen. Much to my amazement, therefore, I found not only a delightful synergy between Any Given Sunday and the titanic struggle between the St. Louis Rams and the Tennessee Titans, but also a parallel interracial dialectic operating in both the screen spectacle and the televised “real life” event. That is to say, I was already aware that professional basketball was dominated by African-American athletes, but until last year’s Super Bowl Sunday I had not realized the extent of African-American preponderance in football.

Mr. Stone has handled this potentially explosive racial divide with marvelous finesse and affection for all involved. Indeed, his celebration of the collective effort of team camaraderie overcoming all sorts of ego explosions reminds me strangely more of Topsy-Turvy than of the much-admired and fondly remembered muck-raking North Dallas Forty (1979). Not that Mr. Stone doesn’t dwell at length on all the carnage inflicted on the playing field, especially in the early sequences before the characterizations begin kicking in. But somehow all the violence and mayhem never becomes corrosive enough to reduce the players on the field to pitiful victims of an evil system.

Admittedly, Mr. Stone does pull his punches on occasion, particularly with regard to the criminal and quasicriminal behavior of too many players. The more-rabid crusaders against violence in the media may feel justified in viewing Mr. Stone as more the problem than the solution. Still, I suspect that many women who make it a habit to stay away from supposedly guy-oriented movies like Any Given Sunday and even from the Super Bowl itself might be somewhat startled by the oddly vulnerable and even feminine feelings generated in the most macho relationships.

Al Pacino as a latter-day Vince Lombardi, whose picture often appears on the wall behind the coach at his most pensive, dominates the proceedings with a well-modulated charisma such as we have not seen since the Golden Age of the Godfather trilogy. Mr. Pacino’s Tony D’Amato delivers the best locker-room invocation to heroism I have heard since Laurence Olivier’s St. Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V (1944), though Gene Hackman’s pep talk in Hoosiers (1986) runs a close third. Still, the best scene in the film, complete with one of Mr. Stone’s accomplished camera movements, is stolen by James Woods as the semi-villainous Dr. Harvey Mandrake, who tampers with medical X-rays to let players willingly risk life and limb to stay on the field.

They are all gladiators, the doctor roars to all and sundry, and, for once, Coach D’Amato cannot come up with one of his moralistic retorts. Indeed, he is very shortly going to be engaged in “inspiring” his fearfully aging and wounded quarterback, Dennis Quaid’s Jack (Cap) Rooney, to step into the breach once more for the sake of the team. For once, the reluctant Rooney is not the kind of stock character who is being pulled in the opposite direction by a fearful, tearful wife. Quite the contrary, Lauren Holly’s Cindy Rooney gives Rooney a virulent tongue-lashing for even thinking of sitting out the Championship Game. It is Cindy’s only scene and, like the caveman with a club in the New Yorker cartoon being told by a woman editor that he hasn’t developed the women characters in his novel, Mr. Stone cannot therefore be suspected of harboring heretofore undisclosed feminist sympathies.

In a more prolonged role, Cameron Diaz is made an unalloyed villainess as the sexlessly interfering owner with a George Steinbrenner complex. Then there is Lela Rochon’s well-educated Vanessa Struthers, who exists only to be humiliated by the new starting quarterback, the initially self-important and ultimately humbled team-playing star, Willie Beamen played with verve and smoothness by Jamie Foxx.

And here’s the funny part. Willie Beamen reminded me of no one so much as the multi-talented Steve McNair of the Tennessee Titans. Mr. McNair, like Beamen, replaced a white quarterback early in the season, and brought a new unpredictability to the team’s offense. I am not suggesting that Mr. McNair is afflicted with the same degree of vanity and eccentricity that Mr. Stone and his co-writers have imposed on Beamen for the sake of creating a generational conflict with veteran coach D’Amato. Yet, it is almost uncanny in the way that Willie Beamen functioned visually on the screen as a virtual prophecy of the emergence of Steve McNair as a media superstar, granting, of course, the one big play that made Cinderella quarterback Kurt Warner an even bigger superstar.

Mr. Stone told Todd McCarthy of Variety that he conceived Any Given Sunday as an homage to the Robert Aldrich (1918-1983) of The Dirty Dozen (1967) and The Longest Yard (1974). There is much more razzle-dazzle in Mr. Stone’s style than in Aldrich’s, but both directors have shared a certain knowing hardness in their vision of the world and a certain unyielding dignity in their characterizations. What is most original in Any Given Sunday is the articulateness of Willie Beamen in describing with pinpoint accuracy the onetime conventional wisdom among even the most supposedly enlightened coaches that African-American players lacked the mental capacity to function as quarterbacks even if they had played the position with great distinction in college. Few if any sportswriters questioned the practice of turning black college quarterbacks into defensive backs in the pros. It is to Mr. Stone’s credit that he tackled this sensitive issue head-on with Willie Beamen, and thereby wrote a new chapter in sports movies.