Disaster Flick With Feelings: Clooney as Ahab-like Auteur

Wolfgang Petersen’s The Perfect Storm , from a screenplay by Bill Wittliff, based on the book by Sebastian Junger, is one of very few recent screen spectacles that can properly be described as “heroic” and even “Homeric.” An omnipotent Nature is the Nemesis here, and the special-effects gurus have performed their appointed tasks with distinction, but the heart and soul of the film is in the humbly haunted maritime working-class community of Gloucester, Mass., with all its memorialized ghosts of fisherman lost at sea over centuries of mining the ocean depths for ever-dwindling supplies of nature’s bounty.

Mr. Petersen and his army of collaborators have swum against the current of contemporary boomer, yuppie and Bobo cynicism and complacency in moviegoing tastes to honor the decency and nobility of honest, physically strenuous labor in an essential industry that’s often inadequately paying, considering the fearsome dangers involved. One has to go back to the Hollywood hardscrabble movies of the 30’s and 40’s, the proletarian epics of the same period from France and Italy, and the Griersonian documentary movements in Britain and Canada to find such an emotional commitment to the fate and plight of working-class lives.

Yet there is nothing bloodlessly abstract or fuzzily sentimental about the characters in The Perfect Storm . I can’t remember another disaster movie in which the deepest feelings are so unaffectedly displayed even before the main action begins. Much of the grown-up quality of the adventure can be attributed to the well-worn, salt-soaked, lived-in performances of a finely chosen acting ensemble, both male and female, and the genre affinity of the film’s director, best known previously for Das Boot ( The Boat , 1981), an accomplished German U-boat adventure. Mr. Petersen explains his fascination with Mr. Junger’s best-selling nonfiction account in the film’s production notes: “I’ve always been drawn to the sea. I think maybe it’s the last frontier for people to go out and have adventures. It’s an unknown world that’s constantly changing.”

But mere attention to a sea story was hardly sufficient to overcome all the obstacles to bringing the project to fruition. Industrial Light & Magic and its visual effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier were entrusted with the prodigious task of manufacturing a credible-looking storm at sea. My inexpert eyes told me the I.L.M. crew succeeded in their endeavor, although that in itself was not what impressed me the most about the movie. Someone else had to make us care about what happened, and here Mr. Petersen is singularly generous to the writing talent on the film: “This is a story with many characters, all of them heroic in their own way, all of them with individual stories that play out at the same time: some at sea, some on land, some in helicopters, many on different boats. And, of course, the storm itself is a major character. We were fortunate to find writers who could weave all those storylines together.”

Not having read Mr. Junger’s book, I cannot fully credit all of the screenplay’s felicities to the screenwriter, Mr. Wittliff. But the apparently communal feelings of love and appreciation on the set for devotion to duty and for old-fashioned character in the story carries over to the screen.

George Clooney is another major auteur of the film, though the Hollywood wiseacres still seem to downgrade him as a star because he didn’t gross a zillion dollars with the Batman franchise. Indeed, he seems less interested in getting into the aging 20-mil-per-pic club than in taking up challenging projects that are not pre-sold as recycled brainless macho fantasies. In this context, The Perfect Storm towers over the M:I-2 mish-mosh artistically if not commercially. And Mr. Clooney’s gritty performance as the Ahab-like Captain Billy Tyne caps an impressive trio of complex, unglamorously charismatic performances, the others being his morally redeemed Sergeant Major Archie Gates in David O. Russell’s Three Kings (1999), and his sympathetic bank robber Jack Foley in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998).

Much of the pathos in the film is generated by the kind of marital breakups familiar to us from old airplane movies and new cop thrillers. Mark Wahlberg’s Bobby Shatford is sorely tempted to quit fishing because his girlfriend, Christina (Chris) Cotter, played by Diane Lane, wants him to, and because he can’t stand to be separated from her for months at a time. But he has a divorce lawyer to pay off and needs enough money left over to start a new life with Chris. Fishing is the only way he knows to make enough income for his two objectives. Bobby and Chris make up the most conspicuously passionate couple in the film, and they become emblematic of all the men who go out to sea and the women who wait fearfully for them on shore, much as the women of the miners in John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) waited for their husbands, fathers and brothers to come home from the coal pits.

John C. Reilly’s Murph, another crew member of Captain Billy’s Andrea Gail , is heartsick over his divorce and separation from his adoring little boy. Captain Billy mourns his own lost wife and his two little girls, visible to him only in a snapshot he keeps on the ship. There is a curiously platonic relationship between Captain Billy and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s Linda Greenlaw, his friendly rival whose luck on the high seas has turned good just as Billy’s has turned bad. Yet the most lyrical language in the film is concentrated in their random conversations in person and on their radio exchanges.

Among the other crew men of the Andrea Gail , William Fichtner’s Sully, Allen Payne’s Alfred Pierre and John Hawkes’ Bugsy each establishes a piquant identity as well as a convincing camaraderie, and if you look carefully, you can catch Cherry Jones as Edie Bailey, a comparatively affluent passenger on a luxury sailboat menaced by the equalizing trauma of a storm to end all storms. The magnificently malignant waves do not discriminate here between classes or genders. The Coast Guard rescuers on the sea and in the air make up a separate chapter on professional heroism and self-sacrifice. The Perfect Storm is close to a perfect picture, graced with working-stiff grandeur.

Single French Female Seeks Fantasy Man

Frédéric Fonteyne’s A Pornographic Affair ( Une Liaison Pornographique ) is anything but. Nathalie Baye’s single French female places a personal ad in a specialized magazine, and out of several applicants she chooses a man, played by Sergi López, to help her fulfill a sexual fantasy. We never learn what that fantasy is, either visually or conversationally, but the relationship flourishes to the point that lovers still anonymous to each other begin to consider a more serious commitment. For once, the hotel room door does not remain teasingly closed to the audience during the sexual activity inside. On this occasion the camera records a conventionally passionate copulation, which, under the peculiar circumstances, qualifies as an experimental adventure.

The story is artfully told through a series of flashbacks in which the man and the woman separately reveal their most intimate thought processes to an unseen anonymous interviewer. The fact that there are no joint interviews suggests two post-mortems on a failed alliance. This is the sort of bittersweet relationship on which the French have a virtual monopoly. Still, the surprisingly deep and poignant emotions generated by the universal vulnerability and fear of rejection shared by both characters and both sexes can be credited to the special charms and talents of Ms. Baye and Mr. López.

The flashbacks never indulge in the easy farce of he-said-she-said discrepancies and misunderstandings. This gives the film a double-edged pathos of lost nerves and missed opportunities with which most of us can identify. After all, who among us hasn’t said the wrong thing at the wrong time at the wrong place to the wrong person? In his convoluted way, Mr. Fonteyne reminds us entertainingly that the outcomes of affairs of the heart are invariably matters of timing.

Private Eye, Public Nuisance

Alan Rudolph’s Trixie has been designated by its excessively eccentric writer-director as a demonstration of screwball noir , thus evoking all sorts of pleasant memories of Hollywood movies of the 30’s and 40’s. Mr. Rudolph was brought up in the movie business, and has long functioned as a self-acknowledged and admiring disciple of his frequent producer, Robert Altman. I must confess that of the dozen or so films Mr. Rudolph has made, the only one that impressed me even moderately was Mortal Thoughts (1991), with Demi Moore, Glenne Headly, Bruce Willis and Harvey Keitel, and in that one he was not credited with the screenplay. For the rest, I have found his allegedly “musical” mode of storytelling forced and incoherent.

My problem with Trixie begins with Emily Watson’s weird accent in the title role, a wacky would-be private eye who operates mostly as a public nuisance, with a witless malapropism for every occasion. She fearlessly confronts every sort of bad guy imaginable and emerges not only unscathed, but deductively triumphant. I have never seen such an array of competent performers like Dermot Mulroney, Nick Nolte, Brittany Murphy, Lesley Ann Warren and Will Patton made to seem so desperately hammy in response to Trixie’s mystifying provocations. Only Nathan Lane manages to retain some professional poise as a self-deprecating gambling casino entertainer. Trixie ultimately proves that nothing fails so dismally as failed whimsy.