When Good Actors Direct So-So Movies … Happy Birthday to Sondheim

When Good Actors Direct So-So Movies

With decent roles in acceptable scripts on the wane, more and more gifted actors are turning to directing their own movies. Bonnie Hunt and Edward Norton are the latest gamblers in these “winner take all” sweepstakes, with varying degrees of success.

Although the multi-talented Ms. Hunt (not to be confused with Helen Hunt) was the first woman to write, produce and star in her own television series, The Building , the movies have not treated her squarely, and she’s been forced to make a specialty act out of playing wives, best friends and wisecracking older sisters in films as varied as Jerry Maguire and The Green Mile. The excellent Mr. Norton has thrilled critics and audiences alike in chameleon-like performances in movies both good (Primal Fear, The People vs. Larry Flynt ) and bad ( Fight Club ). Obviously they both feel something lacking in the way the movies have subjugated their talents, and are now turning to directing. Ms. Hunt’s new movie, Return to Me , which she has directed, co-written (with her longtime writing partner Don Lake) and set in her native Chicago, is a joyous and surprisingly fresh slant on a theme that could otherwise smack of pure soap opera, while Mr. Norton’s new movie, Keeping the Faith , explores a more serious theme, with results both flat and turgid. Hey, it’s a leap. Nobody promised a rose garden.

Return to Me is a sweet, natural and unaffected movie about the way time and circumstance can bring people together and then push them apart. David Duchovny plays a successful architectural engineer whose life falls apart when his wife (Joely Richardson, looking more like her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, every day) dies in an automobile accident. One year later, still haunted by her memory, he’s depressed. The dog is depressed. Not ready to start over, he reluctantly succumbs when his best friend (David Alan Grier) sets him up with a blind date at O’Reilly’s, a colorful Irish-Italian restaurant that becomes an integral setting for most of the film. It’s a great place, and we want to see more.

The blind date turns out to be a disaster, but Mr. Duchovny does meet Grace (Minnie Driver), a waitress who has come out of a life of sickly seclusion after a successful heart transplant and blossomed into a woman full of radiance and personality. Grace lives above the restaurant and is the darling of her Irish-Catholic grandfather Marty (Carroll O’Connor), her Italian uncle Angelo (Robert Loggia) and a coterie of card-playing cronies who cheerfully fight over the merits of ravioli versus corned beef and cabbage, Sinatra versus Crosby. (One Polish pal prefers Bobby Vinton.) Grace’s best friend Megan (Bonnie Hunt), Megan’s gruff, good-natured husband Joe (James Belushi) and their five kids are additional cheerleaders in her rarefied support group.

Into this weird and wacky world Mr. Duchovny’s character finds himself irresistibly drawn, and a slow and touching romance eventually simmers to a boil, bringing him and Grace the first happiness they’ve known for some time. There’s only one problem. Grace’s transplanted heart belongs to the architect’s dead wife, and when the truth comes out, the results are both comic and tragic for all.

There’s no denying that Return to Me has a certain fairy-tale quality some cynics might find to be the romantic equivalent to all those mad-doctor brain-transplant flicks of yore. But I like the way Ms. Hunt keeps the comedy and tears balanced without resorting to bathos or sitcom one-liners. The characters seem molded from real clay, not silly putty. The writing has an appealing naturalism, with a feeling for the way people talk and interface. And she has directed with tenderness and intelligence; she seems to really care. I like the way she works with actors; no director has ever gotten more flavor or excitement out of a scene in a bowling alley.

The romantic world of the two leads is a gentle contrast to both the comic world of the matchmaking regulars at O’Reilly’s and the connubial bickering of Megan and Joe, who provide a practical result of what romance can lead to. Ms. Hunt has given herself the best lines–and a good thing, too, since nobody could say them better–but Mr. Belushi matches her delivery with perfect comic timing. Minnie Driver is not my idea of a screen beauty, but she has a charm and an exuberance that make Grace much more than just another lonely woman in need of affection. David Duchovny has been stuck in The X-Files so long that nobody can remember if he can act or not. He projects a friendly magnetism that is strangely affecting.

The film gets a bit cloying when he follows Grace all the way to Rome and tracks her down by following a nun who is riding her red bicycle; but for the most part this is a well-written, sensibly directed and honest look at everyday people who find love and get their priorities straight in the most unusual circumstances. A refreshing, logical and very endearing film indeed.

As much as I admire Edward Norton, Keeping the Faith is a good idea gone bad about a priest (Norton), a rabbi (Ben Stiller) and a girl from their childhood (Jenna Elfman) who comes back into their lives to wreck their libidos. Instead of insight, the overwrought script by Stuart Blumberg drags in sight gags (Mr. Stiller, as Rabbi Jake, fainting at a bris), unspeakably self-conscious dialogue (Mr. Norton, as Father Brian, trying to teach his parishioners the scriptures by asking “Who can name the Seven Deadly Sins? C’mon, it was a very popular film with Brad Pitt!”) and deadly scenes that drone on endlessly for no purpose (there’s an entire sequence about how to buy a karaoke machine).

Trying to give an Old World God a New World spin, the rabbi and the priest knock themselves into a coma acting hip, while their followers just act like freaks from a rejected sitcom. Mr. Stiller is besieged by what he calls the “Kosher Nostra”–mothers in his synagogue who fax him their marriageable daughters’ resumes–while Mr. Norton compares his celibacy vows with giving up smoking. Then their best friend Anna (Ms. Elfman, from the TV series Dharma & Greg ) comes to town and is no longer a cross between the boy and the babe she was in the sixth grade. Forget about masses and bar mitzvahs.

After Rabbi Jake takes her to bed, she says, “I haven’t screamed that loud since the U.S. hockey team beat the Russians.” Father Brian is so upset that Anna has slept with his best friend that he goes on a bender and wrecks the synagogue in the middle of Yom Kippur. After two hours of apologizing and whining and soul-searching for self-confidence in their chosen religions, the jerky rabbi and the hysterical priest conclude that Anna is “the kind of girl who puts God on speed dial and it turns out to be the Elvis Presley museum.”

Rarely have I heard such long, drawn-out, boring babble from people unable to generate any sparks. Mr. Stiller is still stuck in the same groove that had him wearing semen hair gel, and Ms. Elfman is no movie star by any stretch of anyone’s imagination, including her agent’s. I found myself wishing for a fast-forward button. As a naÏve priest confronting temptation, Mr. Norton has unmistakable charisma, and I doubt if he could make even the most brutally derivative scene look hackneyed. But maybe he needs stronger direction than his own. He just fumbles from scene to scene, waiting for divinely inspired intervention that never arrives.

The film seesaws between strident religious jokes and torturous harangues about the problems of interfaith marriage, while everyone is left to their own devices, stealing scenes without supervision. Lazy and boring, the film forces the audience to endure an endless parade of dull conversations while crowds of extras gather around to eavesdrop. Look fast and you’ll catch brief glimpses of a wasted supporting cast that includes Anne Bancroft, Eli Wallach, Milos Forman, Holland Taylor and Ron Rifkin. If they had been better utilized, the film might add up to more than a peripheral plea for tolerance of all religions through slapstick. I still have faith in Edward Norton, but Keeping the Faith is a difficult way to keep that faith alive and kicking.

Happy Birthday to Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim was 70 on March 22, but at the Museum of Television & Radio the birthday party will continue until June 25. This is a celebration you should make an effort to toast, because you won’t see the rarities on view anywhere else.

In addition to his well-known works ( Sunday in the Park With George , Follies , Into the Woods ), you can see the composer-lyricist’s only appearance as an actor, playing a tough song plugger in a 1974 telecast of the George S. Kaufman-Ring Lardner comedy June Moon , with Estelle Parsons, Jack Cassidy and Susan Sarandon in the cast. Evening Primrose, the only original Sondheim musical written for TV, will also be shown, with a short taped introduction by the show’s star, the late Anthony Perkins. Out-of-circulation footage from Gypsy Rose Lee’s San Francisco-based talk show features guest star Ethel Merman showing home movies of the rehearsals for Gypsy , and a recently discovered “lost” David Frost Show devoted to the Broadway production of Follies even shows Sondheim himself singing “Can That Boy Fox Trot,” a song written for Yvonne DeCarlo and cut in the Boston tryouts. Admission is free (with a suggested donation), but telephone 621-6600 for the complete schedule.