No Use Crying Over Keanu
When Hollywood tires of making new bad movies, they just remake the old ones. Sweet November , a 1968 weepie with Sandy Dennis twitching all over the place and Anthony Newley as her miscast lover, is now disinterred with New Age commodities Charlize Theron and Keanu Reeves. Unlike old brandy, time has done nothing to improve this story’s bouquet. A rose may still be a rose, but dead stinkweed only gets stinkier.
This is the one about the lovable kook who takes a different lover for every month in the year, preferably a loser who needs lessons in how to enjoy life, and discards him after rehabilitation for reasons the film takes nearly two hours to reveal. Mr. Reeves plays Mr. November. He’s a driven, self-centered, stressed-out workaholic in advertising-the annoying kind who lives on cell phones in elevators. On the day he loses his girlfriend and gets fired from his job, after losing his firm millions in a near-pornographic campaign for hot dogs, he meets Ms. Theron while cheating on his driver’s-license renewal at the Department of Motor Vehicles. She’s a charming, offbeat, animal-loving San Francisco eccentric who breaks into buildings to rescue dogs in peril. He resists her aggressive pursuits. She persists, through the most contrived situations ever created by any writer not under the influence of peyote.
He succumbs. They take a bubble bath together. They chase each other blindfolded through her Victorian apartment playing hide-and-seek. They slow-dance to Tony Bennett records. They race toy boats. They do somersaults with white poodles on the beach. They dine al fresco overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. But mostly they eat. Hot fudge sundaes, cocoa, red apples, popsicles, cous cous-every scene involves eating. When you don’t know what to do with actors, as director Pat O’Connor clearly doesn’t, give them food and let them talk with their mouths full. It passes for acting.
By the time Mr. Reeves realizes this is the real deal and gets around to proposing marriage, it’s no wonder Ms. Theron turns green. At first, you may think it’s from the cous cous, served by the two transvestites who live downstairs. But keep an eye on that locked medicine cabinet. Think about the circles under her eyes that get darker after every meal. Beware of that persistent cough, like Garbo in Camille . Remember Ali MacGraw in Love Story . Bad things happen to nice preppies. November is coming to an end. From there on, Sweet November turns into a sobfest.
The two stars slug through the suds like pros. After a surfeit of forgettable action epics, it’s nice to see Keanu Reeves scrubbed and shaved, with a fresh haircut that suits his two facial expressions like a Tiffany frame. Charlize Theron is too healthy and robust to disintegrate so fast; thank goodness for coffin-gray eye shadow and glycerine tears. When she finally throws up, you honestly believe it is from the values dispensed in lines like “Life isn’t perfect” and “Learn to keep the ones you love close to you as long as you can.”
Under the circumstances, it’s no wonder everyone is so easily upstaged by the sculpted charisma and steel-blue eyes of Jason Isaacs, the hunky British actor who did the same thing to Mel Gibson when he played the cruel and villainous redcoat colonel in The Patriot . As a buffed-up advertising honcho who dresses up in green sequined drag after the sun goes down, he’s not safe for bland actors like Mr. Reeves to have around. In or out of drag, Mr. Isaacs is the only thing on the screen you want to see more of. It all ends in a flood of insufferably gooey nobility and sacrifice you will forget like a Chinese menu. All I want to know is, when will somebody put Jason Isaacs above the title in his own starring role? He’s already a force. All he needs is a vehicle.
In Pollock , Film Imitates Art
After making the rounds of the film festival circuit and a one-week unveiling in December to qualify for Oscars, Pollock is finally opening. Despite two deserving nominations for Ed Harris, who directed the film and stars as the self-destructive painter Jackson Pollock, and Marcia Gay Harden as his long-suffering wife and fellow artist Lee Krasner, the commercial prospects for this sincere but inert movie seem bleak. Nothing really happens in it, and the subject of all the attention is something of a pain in the ass.
Even in his fledgling days in 1941 Greenwich Village, Pollock is depicted as angry, simmering and inarticulate to the point of catatonia. Classified 4-F because of his mental instability, he was one step above the gutter when he was rescued by Ms. Krasner, an impassioned bohemian who took care of him through all of his alcoholic rages, sublimating her own promising career in the process. People who still confuse Pollock’s work with paint-brush gibberish will wonder what all the fuss was about. Val Kilmer turns up with a gumbo of an accent as Willem de Kooning and Amy Madigan impresses as an oddball Peggy Guggenheim to tell us how great Pollock was, but the movie makes no attempt to explain why his work was important, or why we should view it in a new, unjaundiced way. All it does is move in on close-ups of Mr. Harris’ booze-glazed eyes burning with lunacy as the demons in his head find their way to canvas.
After pissing into Peggy Guggenheim’s wood-burning fireplace at a New Year’s Eve party before collapsing on top of her guests, Pollock retreats to a cabin in the Hamptons, where he befriends a crow and a stray dog and listens to a lot of Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman records. He achieves stardom in the art world after he throws away his paint brush and starts splattering buckets of paint all over the floor in spaghetti-like swirls and squiggles. “You’ve done it, Pollock, you’ve cracked it wide open,” says Lee, while critics used words like “vigorous” and “original.” But the movie seems to have only one dominant point: Bullshit sells.
Pollock may be heralded as a master of “beautiful patterns of pure form,” but nothing in this film convinces me he was anything more than an arrogant hack who got lucky. In Mr. Harris’ obsessive portrayal, he certainly appears to have been more concerned with value than quality. Since he had nothing to say, the dialogue is minimal. (Pollock was no Van Gogh, and this is not a riveting film of compelling style, like Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life .) He lost track of everything outside of his work, and after a while he didn’t seem to care much about that, either.
All of which leaves room only for the praise the actors clearly deserve. Ed Harris, obviously more consumed by Pollock’s dull story than I was, gives a powerful performance as a man melting from within. Marcia Gay Harden is wrenching as his tortured soul mate, who devoted her life to slavishly trying to make contact with a man who is emotionally cold and unavailable to the end. I felt isolated from the subject matter, but in truth Pollock the film may be too accurate an assessment of Pollock the man’s one-dimensional life for comfort-technically proficient but dramatically empty.
Solving a Sister’s Suicide
Some interesting films still come in small packages, gift-wrapped and ready for delivery to small audiences. The Invisible Circus is such a film, written and directed by Adam Brooks, a young Canadian whose most publicized work to date was the screenplay for Jonathan Demme’s ill-fated Beloved , which he adapted (with co-writer Richard LaGravenese) from Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel. Again working from a literary source, Mr. Brooks has turned Jennifer Egan’s novel The Invisible Circus into a combination mood piece and road movie that builds with emotional twists and ends with transforming redemption.
It’s about two sisters, Phoebe (Jordana Brewster) and Faith (Cameron Diaz), and the intangible ties that bind them in spirit, even after death. In the 1960′s, when youth was fired by political and social change during the Vietnam War, Faith left her 9-year-old sister Phoebe and their widowed mother (another small but piercing cameo by Blythe Danner) at home in San Francisco and headed for Paris with her hippie boyfriend Wolf (Britain’s Christopher Eccleston, from Jude ) to fight injustice and save the world. Mysteriously, Faith fell off a cliff in Portugal and died, apparently a suicide. Ten years later, college-age Phoebe, bored and restless and still haunted by the memory, follows in her sister’s footsteps, guided by the postcards she mailed from Europe. What she discovers about the sister she idolized leaves her shattered.
Cameron Diaz, who materializes only in flashbacks, gives a forceful performance as the reckless and confused American whose naïveté led her to dangerous liaisons with revolutionaries, anarchists and terrorists (comparisons to Patty Hearst come to mind instantly), and whose own moral conscience plummeted her into a state of guilt and depression from which death was the only escape. Trying to re-live her sister’s life, young Phoebe lunges into a love affair with Wolf herself, and together they travel to the remote fishing village where the shocking facts about her sister’s final days are finally revealed. Shaken from her limbo by the truth, Phoebe loses her innocence but faces the future with inner peace.
The Invisible Circus is a slow, perfunctory film with a predictable scenario, but the immediacy of the European settings, the honesty of the performances and the clean, sparing directness of Mr. Brooks’ screenplay add up to a very involving cinematic journey indeed.