You’ve Got Millions
After his Battlefield Earth fiasco, John Travolta needs a new supply of cinematic oxygen to revive his career. Nora Ephron’s Lucky Numbers is not it. This frantic, labored comedy trashes the talents of everyone in sight and buries the affable star in porky mode on the bottom of the heap. The smart, capable Ms. Ephron has always seemed more self-assured directing her own scripts, and this one, by ex–David Letterman writer Adam Resnick, truly stinks. Maybe that’s the bile that poisoned the stew, but it’s hard to tell. Moronic plot twists, ugly camera work, cheesy performances, tacky sets-it’s a movie in which everyone shrieks a lot and nothing works at all.
Mr. Travolta plays a TV weatherman in Harrisburg, Pa., who is such a local celebrity he even has his own reserved table at Denny’s. He also owns a failing snowmobile dealership that is going bankrupt in a December heat wave where the temperature never falls below 60 degrees. Facing financial ruin, he takes the advice of a sleazy strip-joint owner (Tim Roth) and arranges a bogus robbery for insurance purposes, but it all goes wrong and he has to sell his car to pay off the thugs. With Dale the thug (Michael Rapaport) blackmailing him to keep the police at bay, Mr. Travolta’s character enlists the aid of his sexual squeeze and the TV station’s resident bitch, the Lotto ball girl (Lisa Kudrow) in a scheme to defraud the Pennsylvania State Lottery out of nearly $7 million.
That crime works, and her idiot cousin Walter (Michael Moore) agrees to be the beard, buying the winning ticket to purchase a new furnace for his church and open an adult book store. But Walter drops dead, and the two nitwits are up to their mortgaged ears trying to get out of the hopeless situation with an incompetent cop (Bill Pullman) on their tails. Larceny, murder, extortion and hysteria ensue, with so many people demanding a cut of the winnings it’s impossible to keep track of all the double-crosses in a film that seems inspired by too much analysis of the collected works of the Three Stooges.
Unwisely encouraged to overact, the cast is spastic, edgy and noisy throughout. Less charming than usual, Mr. Travolta has a few ingratiating moments nonetheless as he goes ballistic, one nerve at a time. But even he is an egotistical dork, and with his new Mr. Spock skullcap haircut he looks like a puffy cyborg. More annoying than usual, Ms. Kudrow, who slaps everyone around in a series of violent screaming fits, is a bargain-basement Shirley MacLaine. Mr. Moore is asthmatic, obese, slightly retarded and a sexual pervert. Somebody must have thought his rambling speech about masturbation was funny on paper; it just makes you nauseated on film. Mr. Pullman has a few distracting moments as the cop so lazy he gives out speeding tickets and gets too bored to sign them.
The biggest problem is that every character is either evil and manipulative or brain-dead. There is nobody to root for, and the dialogue should be X-rated. Lucky Numbers is quite painful, actually. You agonize through it wondering why it was made, what they were thinking about when they made it and what the unlucky audience ever did to deserve it in the first place.
Caddy-Schlock: Paging Bill Murray!
In The Legend of Bagger Vance , directed by Robert Redford, an angel from Heaven (Will Smith) arrives in Savannah, Ga., to caddy for a broken, disillusioned golfer (Matt Damon) in time to perform a miracle and teach ennobling lessons in the power of dignity and self-respect. This is something of a first. I mean, we’ve had movies about golfers who drop dead on the 18th hole, but you don’t get many golf movies where they come back from the dead as angel caddies. If you survive the excruciating Bagger Vance without snoring, you’ll know why. This movie is so boring it makes golf widows of us all.
Narrated by an unbilled Jack Lemmon, as an old man who was 10 years old when the story happened, the events unfold in flashback under moss-covered magnolia trees, silhouetted against butter-colored Georgia sunsets. Southern characters with unlikely, unpronounceable names, improbable drawls and alligators crawling across their front lawns are all a-twitter over Savannah’s golden lovers, Rannulph Junuh (Mr. Damon) and Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron). He’s a golf icon with a brilliant future on the links-a regular Ben Hogan in the making-until World War I comes along. When he returns home a decorated hero, he’s lost his swing. Although we never really know why Junuh is so confused, embittered and emotionally scarred, Mr. Damon plays seedy despair by giving up shaving. Meanwhile, the Depression arrives, bankrupting Adele’s father, who has invested his money in the completion of a fabulous golf resort. The two greatest golf champions in America have agreed to compete in a $10,000 tournament and she needs Junuh-the old boyfriend she hasn’t seen since the war-to represent Savannah in the match. Junuh is so far gone he “wouldn’t know a putter from a pussy willow,” says one old sage, until a scruffy angel named Bagger Vance materializes to coach, inspire and turn Junuh from underdog to champion by choosing and handing him all the right irons for all the right strokes. Bagger is a cross between the angel in Heaven Can Wait and Santa Claus. He is also one of the biggest bores in the history of movies.
Bagger feels the grass grow beneath his feet. Bagger moves his arms to follow the path of the sun. Bagger listens to the sound of the night, while director Redford follows the crawl of a cricket on a stalk of goldenrod. No time is devoted to character development, but we don’t miss a single shot of the tournament. The golf match goes on for an entire weekend, and we have to live through every tee, every bogey, every birdie, every putt, every hole-in-one, every sand trap, every swing and every penalty of it. Will Smith philosophizes constantly in his Stepin Fetchit patois, but half the time I, for one, had no idea what he was talking about, while the lovely Ms. Theron turned from steel butterfly to enchanted, honey-dripping Southern belle most unconvincingly. There’s a star-making performance, however, by newcomer Joel Gretsch as one of the competing golf pros, and a nice contribution by a young lad named J. Michael Moncrief as the little boy who idolizes Junuh and grows up to be Jack Lemmon. I had no idea what period we were in, but James Cagney in The Public Enemy was playing at the local movie house, so I assume the year was 1931. There were times, I confess, when I would have preferred Cagney shoving a grapefruit into the face of Mae Clark than anything I was watching in Bagger Vance .
This leaves golden boy Matt Damon looking consumed with self-pity throughout, probably because as Rannulph Junuh, he was saddled with a part he couldn’t even pronounce, much less act. With his long aquiline nose, perfect hair and Gatsby sweaters the color of vanilla ice cream, he is always watchable. He also has the only Southern accent in the cast that seems remotely authentic. But even he can’t speed up the pace when every dreary line of overripe dialogue in Jeremy Leven’s leaden screenplay is spoken in twice the amount of time it should take.
Robert Redford’s films are always meticulous, thoughtful and ponderous, but with The Legend of Bagger Vance he’s made a movie that even Jack Nicklaus, Sammy Snead, Arnold Palmer and Babe Didrickson Zaharias couldn’t sit through.
Autumn in A N.Y. Marriage
Mr. Gazzara may be gray around the temples, but he’s still as dashing and full of vinegar as he was in the stormy films of his youth, and he’s forgotten nothing about his craft. He’s made such a career out of playing tough guys it’s almost a shock to see him without a pistol in his hand, but in a role of rare sensitivity he plays a character referred to only as Frank, a man who is reluctantly forced to retire from business and watch his blood sugar. Ms. Moreno is Maggie, his wife and soulmate of too many years to count, who would like to spend their autumnal years rekindling the love they knew as kids.
Maggie drags Frank off to their cabin in the Catskills to get away from their grown children, slow down their clocks and maybe recapture some of the rapture they once shared. In the middle of the night, they’re invaded by a younger couple who turn out to be Frank and Maggie several generations earlier. Separated by six recessions, nine Presidents, three kids, one grandchild and a lifetime of marriage, divorce and death, the two couples provide a sad reminder of how time changes things and people take each other for granted. By observing the younger versions of themselves, Frank and Maggie discover what they’ve learned and lost, teach the younger couple what they’ve got to look forward to and find a new way to face the passage of time with dignity and courage together.
Blue Moon is nothing more than an old, familiar episode of Twilight Zone , but it’s a thrill to watch Ben Gazzara and Rita Moreno at the top of their form, trading insults, watching calmly, listening intently, generously giving each other the center camera spot when the scene requires it. He’s funny doing the twist at his retirement party; she’s full of the old paprika when his ball scores get more attention than she does. They’ve forgotten more about nuance than most actors today will ever learn, and they blend like toast and jam. Together, they take a script as thin as a membrane and give it life, with skin, bones and a rich, full heart.
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