The Too-Good-For-This Call Girl, One Way to Launch a Career

Claire Dolan , the second feature film by 35-year-old New York native writer-director Lodge Kerrigan, will open the Film Society of Lincoln Center-Walter Reade Theater’s American Independent Visions series on Feb. 25. With its rigorously controlled character delineation and erotic explicitness, the film is reportedly more “accessible” to mainstream audiences than Mr. Kerrigan’s first film, Clean, Shaven (1993), which has been described as disturbingly psychotic. The title role of an Irish-born prostitute plying her profession in New York City is played by the strikingly variable actress Katrin Cartlidge, familiar to New Yorkers from her wide-ranging virtuoso turns in Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) and Career Girls (1997), and Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996). In her spiritual odyssey from hookerdom to ecstatically single motherhood, Ms. Cartlidge’s Claire bounces off Vincent D’Onofrio’s Elton Garrett, her well-meaning but ineffectual taxi driver boyfriend, and Colm Meaney’s Roland Cain, her subtly menacing pimp.

I must confess that, coming cold to the screening, I did not realize at first that the action was supposed to be taking place in Manhattan, and later Newark. The director’s studiedly abstract and depopulated images of blocks of windows glistening voyeuristically in the sunlight tend to isolate Claire in a private hell far from the madding crowd. We see and hear her on the telephone talking to clients with confident carnality. Ms. Cartlidge’s obviously high-priced call girl is not as unbelievably drop-dead gorgeous as Julia Roberts’ street whore in Pretty Woman , but Claire Dolan is unbelievable in a subtler way. She seems too smart and self-aware to have allowed herself to be trapped in such a demeaning position.

Mr. Kerrigan has said in an interview that the idea for the film came to him while working on his first film in an editing room near Times Square. One day, he saw a pregnant prostitute practicing her trade around the Lincoln Tunnel entrance. He felt a rush of conflicting feelings over this brazen conjunction of maternity with the sleaziest sexuality. As the crystallization of these feelings, Claire Dolan never quite escapes the realm of male fantasy. We are in the land of the metaphorical Magdalene whom we have seen so often on the screen, a creature who can surrender her body without losing her soul.

The acting of the three leads fortunately covers up many of the gaps left by the overly laconic dialogue and the highly improbable plot contrivances. For one, Claire is supposed to have amassed the huge debt she is working off with her usurious pimp on behalf of her dying mother. When the mother dies, Claire feels liberated enough to plan her next move, which leads to her picking up a taxi driver in a Newark bar, and finding in him the first true love of her life and the ultimate father of her blessed child. Mr. D’Onofrio gives the driver, oddly named Elton, more substance and charisma than the hopelessly confused character deserves. Mr. Meaney’s pimp, Roland, is similarly overqualified to snatch at bits and pieces of characterization, and transform them into an entertainingly ironic continuum.

Though one would think that a movie that delivers the visual goods on Claire’s lurid activities would have no trouble finding a distributor, the fact is that the very seriousness and disenchanted moodiness of the movie as a work of art makes it a hard sell even for the art-house crowd. It could have done with more leavening wit and humor, and perhaps more of a stab at even minimal sociological realism. As it is, I find Mr. Kerrigan acutely perceptive when he illustrates the omnipresence of potentially explosive male rage at the outrageous power women possess to arouse men without even half trying.

By far the best scene of witty repartee occurs when two half-menacing lowlifes confront Claire in a seedy saloon and the more aggressive of the two swaggeringly informs her that she has no real choice in the matter. With marvelous coolness, Claire suggests to the swaggerer that she really finds his comparatively silent partner much better-looking, and would the swaggerer mind if she let the partner go first. Stung to the quick, as only a deeply insulted male lecher can be, the swaggerer stalks off, enraged and defeated.

At the very least, Mr. Kerrigan is to be commended for finding unconventional backing for a difficult project, namely from Marin Karmitz of MK2 Productions.

Michael Douglas, Class Clown

Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys , from a screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by Michael Chabon, turns out to be so clearly the best movie released anywhere so far this year that it runs the risk of being too good and fair-minded for most audiences, as Alexander Payne’s Election proved to be early last year. Wonder Boys is certainly superior to any of the Oscar nominees for best picture of 1999. Indeed, it is the kind of wittily literate satire of bookish academe that I am used to seeing only in rare British and French movies.

From the first scene to the last, I could hardly believe all the off-putting pitfalls Mr. Hanson, Mr. Kloves and their inspired collaborators and cast managed to avoid in translating Mr. Chabon’s excellent novel about a college writing professor in midlife crisis into an excellent movie. Think of all the temptations to go for derisive laughs at the expense of the characters. As it is, a blind dog is shot dead, the fur-lined jacket Marilyn Monroe was wearing when she married Joe DiMaggio is stolen from a private memorabilia shrine, 2,000 single-spaced pages of a novel manuscript years and years in the writing are sent flying into a windswept river. At the very least, Wonder Boys replaces George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) as the best film ever made in Pittsburgh.

Michael Douglas has never been as heroic and affecting as he is here in the role of Grady Tripp, a onetime literary star who has succumbed to a crisis of confidence in his talent while teaching a creative writing course in a major college. Grady’s solution to his problem is to stretch out a follow-up novel to his first success so that it can never be finished, published and exposed to readers and critics. In the meantime, he has embarked on an affair with Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand), a middle-aged college chancellor married, inconveniently enough, to the chairman of the English department, Walter Gaskell (Richard Thomas), Grady’s boss.

As the fateful weekend of the film begins, Sara tells Grady that she is pregnant with his child and that she has not decided whether to keep the baby. This news hits Grady on the very day that his wife has left him–which does not leave him as emotionally free as he had anticipated. Into this mix of middle-aged malaises come two writing students with very different agendas for Grady: James Leer (Tobey Maguire), a promising but wildly eccentric writer whom the other students find weird, and Hannah Green (Katie Holmes), a beacon of intelligence in Grady’s class and the tenant of a spare room in his house. Hannah sees the departure of Grady’s wife as a golden opportunity, and it is a mark of Grady’s essential decency and high professional standards that he resists all the seductive, ego-flattering enticements of a babe with brains.

To make matters more chaotic, the college weekend has been given over to “Wordfest,” a cultural orgy in which literary and publishing celebrities from the so-called real world invade the campus and turn everything upside down. Among these interlopers are Grady’s long-suffering editor, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), and his towering transvestite companion, Miss Sloviak (Michael Cavadias), and Grady’s old nemesis, the fabulously popular, prolific and vulgar author known simply as Q (Rip Torn). But the story really revolves around the unexpected bonding of Grady and James under these peculiar circumstances; a warm surrogate father-son relationship springs up without ever becoming sticky-sentimental or sappy-censorious.

This is a wonderful film about teaching and writing and telling stories as noble enterprises that justify one’s existence. And yet as Grady lurches from disaster to disaster, with the occasional blackout episode to ease the unbearable tension, the movie retains a level of perpetual merriment just this side of outright hilarity. You never know what exactly is coming next, and I’m not going to tell you on this occasion, except to reveal that no one is left terminally demeaned or humiliated, although many drastic changes occur in many lives.

Mr. Douglas has taken some big chances with his often bedraggled and enfeebled character, looking on occasion like Norman Bates’ mother with her granny glasses, but his spare but strategically placed narration keeps him firmly in command of the proceedings even when he is located at the periphery of the action. Equally miraculous is the perfect pitch of the other performers as they remain in sync with Grady even when he seems in the middle of a permanent downhill slide. Regarding Mr. Maguire, any reservations I had about his talent after The Cider House Rules have been erased here with his controlled catatonia, particularly in a virtuoso recitation of all the suicides in Hollywood. Ms. McDormand, Ms. Holmes and Jane Adams as Oola, the ultimate recipient of Marilyn Monroe’s jacket, project womanliness without bitchery. There is indeed not a false note in the whole ensemble of the most civilized and compassionate entertainment we are likely to see this year.