Proust’s Big Premiere; Carrey’s Big Collapse

Raúl Ruiz’s Time Regained , from a screenplay by Gilles Taurand and Mr. Ruiz, based on the volume Time Regained from In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, may or may not appeal to people who have never read Proust and have only a vague idea of his importance in world literature, an importance so lasting that the adjective “Proustian” has been absorbed into the English language with as wide a range of connotations as “Kafkaesque,” “Dickensian,” “Aristotelian” et al. (One might add, from the cinema, “Chaplinesque,” “Felliniesque,” “Hitchcockian” et al.) One would think that Proust’s poetics of time and memory in the service of the novel would have led him to the cinema, the medium of time and memory par excellence, during his comparatively short life (1871-1922), but there is no evidence that he took an unusual interest in the movies. It has been reported that he never even saw Charlie Chaplin on the screen. Even so, the movies are showing an increasing interest in Proust, though his convoluted oeuvre would seem to pose prodigious problems for adaptation to the medium that did not exist when he was born.

Mr. Ruiz has chosen not to dramatize Proust but, rather, to evoke him through lushly photographed interiors, polished surfaces and doors opening from one period to another, from one party to another, from one conversation to another. Meanwhile, outdoors, a war is raging on the outskirts of Paris and the aristocrats in Proust’s circle are making life-and-death decisions, but it is all a swirl of aphorisms, petty malicious gossip and a degree of libertinage that would still cause tremors in today’s media-mad world if we treated it as casually as did Proust’s intimates. In the Proustian world, everything is spoken about freely but almost nothing is shown graphically.

In the midst of all the swirl, Marcelo Mazzerello walks, talks, listens and observes as the authorial presence of Proust himself. We meet Catherine Deneuve as Odette de Crecy, Emmanuelle Béart as Gilberte, Vincent Pérez as Morel, John Malkovich as the Baron de Charlus, Pascal Gregory as Saint-Loup, Marie-France Pisier as Mme. Verdurin, Christian Vadim as Bloch, Arielle Dombasle as Mme. de Farcy, Chiara Mastroianni as Albertine, and we listen to Patrice Chéreau as the voice of Marcel Proust. And in the end, we celebrate the author’s genius in creating a work that will make him an eternal inspiration to people of taste and culture. See this movie.

This Summer’s Secret: See Butterfly

José Luis Cuerda’s Butterfly , from a screenplay by Rafael Azcona and based on the collection of short stories, Que Me Quieres, Amor? , by Manuel Rivas, takes place in the Spanish province of Galicia just after the fall of the monarchy and the rise of the short-lived Spanish Republic, in the years before the Spanish Civil War brought Generalissimo Francisco Franco to power as Spain’s long-lived fascist dictator.

Most of the film is devoted to the pedagogical relationship that develops between a liberal teacher named Don Gregoria (Fernando Fernán Gómez) and a young boy, Moncho (Manuel Lozano). This turns out to be one of the most devastating political films I have ever seen, and one of the best of any kind I have seen this year. I will return to it after all my readers have had a chance to see it, because my conscience won’t allow me to give away the precise details of its power to sway.

A Hunk Named Hank, a Chump Named Charlie

Bobby and Peter Farrelly’s Me, Myself & Irene , from a screenplay by the brothers Farrelly and Mike Cerrone, seemed to have a lot going for it before I climbed into the stratosphere of the new Empire 25-screen multiplex, on 42nd Street near Eighth Avenue. Me, Myself & Irene was being previewed on a Sunday afternoon in Theater 18, which turned out to be a huge amphitheater with an extra-large screen, perfect sight lines, and just about every film pundit I know in attendance, as well as a generous sprinkling of the kind of hoi polloi who never write anything, but still manage to attend more free screenings than I do. Still, after I adjusted my lungs to the thinner air at these heights, I sat back with at least a modicum of anticipation.

The coming-attraction footage I had seen the week before looked and sounded funny, and it is well known that I can forgive a great many flaws in a movie if it makes me laugh loudly enough and often enough. Less widely known is my scandalous admiration for the looks and talents (and looks) of Renée Zellweger. Her co-star, Jim Carrey, could get enough laughs for both of them, and the Farrelly brothers were the merriest pranksters around this side of the odious Adam Sandler. After all, the Farrelly brothers had collaborated with Mr. Carrey on Dumb and Dumber (1994), their directorial debut, and Mr. Carrey has seldom been funnier than he was there, in tandem with his unexpectedly gifted co-farceur Jeff Daniels. As for the biggest hit of the brothers Farrelly, There’s Something About Mary (1998), I liked it well enough to vote for Cameron Diaz as best actress at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, at least as a slap at middlebrow snobbery. Still, I have always been averse to bathroom humor as an anal tickler for kiddie audiences, and the Farrellys have always crossed that line with impunity. Yet nothing they and Mr. Carrey have done in the past comes close to this ghastly goulash of grossness, much of it clearly targeted at opening-week inner-city audiences. And this time there is little in the way of wit and charm to compensate for the new film’s you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it tastelessness.

Mr. Carrey’s schizophrenic Rhode Island state trooper is divided between a nebbish named Charlie, who turns the other cheek with a vengeance even when he is humiliatingly provoked, and a bullying, womanizing, completely insincere hunk named Hank. This dual character is distantly related to Steve Martin’s dual male-female identity, which he shared with the ghost of Lily Tomlin’s aggressively feminist character in Carl Reiner’s All of Me (1984). The only reason I bring up this resemblance is not to suggest that the screenwriters of Me, Myself & Irene needed to plagiarize a movie-plot gimmick that is almost as old as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde , Robert Louis Stevenson’s literary original, but rather that Mr. Martin’s antics as he battles himself physically are both funnier and subtler than Mr. Carrey’s more strenuous and more tedious exertions in the same arena. Yet it is not so much a question of one comedian’s comical talents in comparison with another’s, but rather that of a clear decline over the past decade and a half in the industry’s expectations of sophistication in the audience.

Then there are the nervy interracial howlers. It all starts with upstanding state trooper Charlie Baileygates getting married to Layla (Traylor Howard) in a paramilitary parody of a state trooper wedding. Before Charlie can carry Layla over the proverbial threshold, she is eye-seduced right under his nose by a hot-tempered, sensitive-to-every-slight African-American dwarf limo driver (Tony Cox) with an I.Q. high enough-as is Layla’s-to qualify for membership in Mensa. In the next shot, Charlie presides over a neighborhood barbecue with his wife and their suspiciously dark-skinned triplet sons. Ha ha, Charlie is a cuckold-and the poor sap is clueless to the point of refusing to respond to the questioning glances and pitying hints about his oddly hued “offspring.” This double-barreled bit of humor gives us the opportunity to laugh at Charlie being too blissfully dumb to perceive the evidence of his cuckoldry, while inducing us to admire his saintliness for refusing to allow the racists around him to diminish his loving acknowledgment of his children by a shame-ridden confrontation with his brazen hussy of a wife.

A somewhat similar tweaking of segregationist sensibilities was performed by Steve Martin’s orphaned adoptee in an African-American plantation-worker family in Mr. Reiner’s The Jerk (1979). Mr. Martin’s character turns the antiracist screws a little tighter by bemoaning his discovery that he was cursed by “whiteness” in his past. In both films, more than two decades apart, we presumably enlightened viewers are supposed to be convulsed by this turnabout-is-fair-play sending up of American apartheid laws and customs. The joke seems inoffensive enough until its blatant smugness and self-deceiving hypocrisy in preaching to the converted makes the laughter die in one’s throat. To top off Charlie’s disgrace, Layla runs off with the limo driver, who now behaves less like a nerdy soulmate than a swinging hustler (and, possibly, a future pimp). Layla and her lover casually abandon their three children to be brought up by the steadfast Charlie.

Flash forward a few years, and the normal-size triplets grow and overgrow into three stereotypically obese and foul-tongued rapper types (Anthony Anderson, Mongo Brownlee, Jerod Mixon) with anti-stereotypical high-tech virtuosity in their capacious brains. Push-pull: Politically incorrect funkiness for easy laughs is balanced by a politically correct hyper-intelligence from an interracial mixture of superior genes that do not discriminate between pigmentations.

Still, the community persists in literally and figuratively defecating on the hapless Charlie, though, strangely, never shunning or persecuting his three children, who perform like the updated African-American equivalents of the aggressively Jewish Ritz Brothers of the 30′s and early 40′s. Enter Hank in Charlie’s long-suffering psyche, and this Hyde-like hulk gives several of his most conspicuous tormentors their comically satisfying comeuppance. By the time Ms. Zellweger’s Irene arrives on the scene with a feeble array of bad guys pursuing her, the movie has degenerated into a feature-length display of Mr. Carrey’s schizophrenic shtick. All Irene can do is look with bemused wonder at Charlie’s private vaudeville show.

Ms. Zellweger hangs in there like the spunky Jean Arthur–ish screwball heroine she was born to play, but she is a comedienne, not a contortionist, and she is wasted here-not through any conscious disrespect, but, rather, through a mindless irrelevance.