John Schlesinger’s The Next Best Thing , from a screenplay by Thomas Ropelewski, seems to have been designed to exploit Rupert Everett’s overtly gay persona, so winningly projected in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997). At first glance, Mr. Everett’s Robert, a Los Angeles landscaper, seems to share with Madonna’s Abbie the same sort of gay-best-friend relationship he had with the Julia Roberts’ character in Wedding . But there is a harder edge to the gay world in The Next Best Thing , which is a greater awareness of the AIDS epidemic and the homophobia it has wrought in the straight community. The battle lines are drawn at a funeral attended by the otherwise excluded gay circle of the AIDS victim and the controlling straight family who have come from far and wide to reclaim the young man they had shunned while he was alive. Abbie is the only female member of this gay circle, and, as such, is iconically consistent with the performer’s off-screen persona, at least as seen in the campy music videos that have made up the myth of Madonna.
The film begins very awkwardly with Abbie being dumped by her straight record-company-executive boyfriend Kevin (Michael Vartan), but not before he pays tribute to her extraordinary beauty in words that seem not only insincere, but embarrassingly at odds with what the camera reveals of faded charm and sex appeal. When Abbie sends out a panic-attack call to Robert, he responds dutifully to restore her shattered self-esteem. One thing leads to another, and Robert and Abbie consummate a 10-martini bender as if they were a completely straight couple.
Up to this point, one would think that The Next Best Thing was going to be a comedy that would trade indefinitely on one-liners enabling straight audiences to guffaw at words like “queen” and “faggot” in the context of gay self-ridicule. It follows that most of the funny lines and self-mocking bits of business are performed by the artful Mr. Everett, and there is consequently very little magic or chemistry between Robert and Abbie. Then Abbie declares that she has been impregnated by Robert and intends to keep the baby, and Robert agrees to act as a full-time father, though, obviously, also as a non-husband, sleeping in a separate bedroom.
Years pass with remarkably few complications. Robert strays a few times back to his gay haunts, but his heart isn’t in it anymore because being a father has truly transformed him. Disaster strikes for Robert when Abbie meets Ben (Benjamin Bratt), an investment banker, and they fall in love in record time. Worse still, Ben’s business will take him to New York, and with him will go Abbie and her little boy, Sam, whom Robert loves beyond all measure. The plot takes several unwise twists at this point, though all ends moderately well, but not before Abbie, Robert and even Ben have lost sympathy, dignity and credibility.
Some people may cry at the end, but no one will laugh, largely because Mr. Everett displays a remarkable dramatic range that deserves subtler and more interesting parts.
Boy Marries Girl, Boy Meets Another Girl
Soren Kragh-Jacobsen’s Mifune , from a screenplay by Mr. Kragh-Jacobsen and Anders Thomas Jensen, derives its title from the name of the late Japanese samurai screen icon Toshiro Mifune, particularly in his role as the last and the least of the selfless warriors in Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954). It seems that our hero Kresten (Anders W. Bertelsen) used to entertain his retarded brother Rud (Jesper Asholt) with scary imitations of Mifune when they were growing up on a poorly run farm on a desolate and impoverished Danish island. But I am getting way ahead of the thin and tangled plot.
Mifune happens to be the third Danish film to emerge under the banner of Dogma 95 and the group’s Vow of Chastity, a pretentious affirmation of practices and restraints supposedly leading to greater spontaneity, realism, truth, contemporaneity and freedom from genre come-ons like guns and murders. Background music is forbidden, along with optical devices, artificial lighting, invasive props and, presumably, digital technology. On the other hand, an art-house come-on such as quasi-pornographic simulated fornication is O.K.
Frankly, I don’t know what to make of Mifune and the festival people around the world who have given it awards. What struck me most forcibly about the film was its incoherent narrative, its actorish self-indulgence, its garrulousness and repetitiousness, its proudly messy mise en scène , its vintage Hollywood message that money doesn’t bring happiness, and its vintage Sundance message that chaotic lives are more “authentic” than ordered lives.
The movie begins with a whirlwind exposition of Kresten’s marriage to his boss’ daughter, Claire (Sofie Grabol), followed by a night of hypersexual exuberance with Claire relentlessly astride Kresten, her orgasmic cries rising in volume as her seemingly nonplused husband acts like a prisoner in a marital torture chamber. This comic treatment of sex, with its misogynist put-down of an apparently insatiable rich girl, sets her and us up for her being dumped in record time without any blame placed on the husband.
What happens is this: The morning after his sexual ordeal, Kresten receives a telephone call informing him that his father has died. He had previously told everyone in Copenhagen, including Claire, that he had no family. Why he wished to deny his humble roots is never adequately explained, but off he goes to a troublesome reunion with his retarded and malodorously unwashed brother and as nasty a batch of trashy neighbors as are to be found this side of Tobacco Road.
Kresten’s first problem is to find someone to care for Rud, but when he advertises for a housekeeper, a beautiful prostitute named Liva (Iben Hjejle) shows up from Copenhagen in flight from a malignant pimp and a mysterious stalker. “What?” you may exclaim. Still another happy hooker character with an untarnished soul, this one is in the business only to keep her difficult younger brother in private school.
If you can’t figure out what happens next, you just haven’t seen many movies. But you may be startled to discover how long it takes (150 minutes) to reach the inevitable final clinch. The acting is capable enough, but there is simply too much of it
An Old Racket, With a Little Wall Street Thrown In
Ben Younger’s Boiler Room turns out not to be as timely and topical as the early buzz has led us to believe. Boiler rooms and other telemarketing scams have been with us long before the current cybermania and dot-com dottiness took off into the speculative stratosphere. J.T. Marlin is the company operating the boiler room into which Mr. Younger’s 19-year-old college dropout protagonist Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi) is lured from his own illegal blackjack venue in his Kew Gardens, Queens, apartment, inside which he separates susceptible Queens College students from their parental allowances. One night Seth is visited in his lair by the
fast-talking J.T. Marlin recruiter named Michael ( Ben Affleck), in the mostly first-names-only manner of the screenplay.
Seth sees Michael’s offer both as an opportunity to make his first million while he is still young enough to enjoy it, and also as a way of gaining the love and respect of his father (Ron Rifkin), a judge and a judgmental man besides. Soon Seth is hobnobbing with Chris (Vin Diesel) and Greg (Nicky Katt), his mentors, as well as with his fellow trainees. Mr. Ribisi is oddly cast in this company of raffish studs out for a fast buck. His Seth comes over more as a cunning nerd who plays all his cards face down. I do not at all identify with Seth, despite the fact that my mother spent the last 45 years of her life in Kew Gardens. First, I am the worst poker player in the Western world, and second, I have never had enough business acumen to sell my mother a lock of my hair.
Boiler room brokers and telemarketers therefore are as remote from me as mountain climbers and bungee jumpers. Still, I found myself mildly interested in Seth as an aggrieved underachiever in the financial world simply because he couldn’t get into any of the prestigious Ivy League schools and be recruited by “honorable” firms like Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan. In this context, a fly-by-night swindle shop like J.P. Marlin makes too easy a target and is a far cry in the magnitude of its villainies from Oliver Stone’s high-stake hostile-takeover wars celebrated through Michael Douglas’ Gordon (“Greed is Good”) Gekko in Wall Street , released in 1987, the year, incidentally, of the last crash on Wall Street. So let us pray. And Mr. Younger freely acknowledges the influence on Boiler Room not only of Wall Street , but also of James Foley and David Mamet’s brilliant Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) with its all-star roster of hustling real estate salesmen.
Boiler Room is not as painfully Oedipal as Mr. Stone’s work, nor as psychologically voracious as Glengarry . Mr. Younger starts his film out like gangbusters when he is concentrating on the charismatic rascality of the boiler-room ensemble, but he slows down appreciably when he overloads Seth with repentance and redemption in a vain effort to salvage him as a sympathetic character. As it is, the two most interesting characters are Mr. Diesel’s rivetingly manipulative telemarketer Chris, and Nia Long’s amusingly fatalistic secretary, who accepts the marginal morality around her simply because she doesn’t know of many secretaries making $80,000 a year.