Are De Niro’s 15 Minutes Up? … Samuel Jackson, Homeless and Hairy

The film forecast this week is bleak, black and bad for the

disposition. Since the beginning of the year, I can’t remember seeing so many

catastrophes in such a short amount of time. Doesn’t anybody know how to make

movies anymore?

15 Minutes , with

Robert De Niro and Ed Burns as, respectively, a celebrity cop and a New York

fire marshal who reluctantly join forces to solve a double murder, at least

tackles promising material. At a time when everybody from White House in-laws

to convicted serial killers jockey for position in prime-time Media Age sound

bites, crime, tragedy and chaos mean ratings, money and fame. It’s no wonder we

live in an age of ultimate cynicism. When the good guys meet the bad guys

searching for 15 minutes of attention on the network news, you can’t tell the

difference. Until it degenerates into conventional,

formulaic violence and mayhem, writer-director John Herzfeld’s 15 Minutes seems smart and fearless.

Sadly, that feeling of freshness dissipates

faster than yesterday’s tabloid scandal.

Robert De Niro, a fine actor with a tarnished track record

who will take on any kind of project regardless of its quality as long as the

deal is right, plays a colorful and celebrated detective who dunks his head in

a urinal of ice water before each TV appearance to sober himself up for the

cameras. He’s already been on the cover of People

magazine, and he’ll do whatever it takes to stay in the get-famous business.

When a couple of killers from Eastern Europe arrive in New York posing as

tourists, brutally murdering two fellow illegal immigrants and a prostitute and

burning down a tenement building, Mr. De

Niro’s cop seizes the opportunity for more media hype.

In the investigation that follows, he finds himself saddled,

for some unexplainable reason, with a fireman (Mr. Burns) who tags along like a

protégé. (Since when does a New York fireman arrest muggers and race down

Madison Avenue firing handguns? Has Mayor Giuliani heard about this?) Joining

them on the spree is Kelsey Grammer as the corrupt star of a tabloid TV show

who will stop at nothing to get a scoop on the air before Dan Rather.

Meanwhile, the two killers on a rampage do some high-profile flirting with the

media themselves. One of them is a movie buff with a stolen digital-video

camcorder who registers in hotels as “Frank Capra.” As the horror escalates,

the satire peters out until there is nobody left to root for. The two maniacs

videotape their crimes, the TV star shows the brutal murders on national TV to

the kind of bloodthirsty viewing public that causes riots at Hannibal screenings, and everybody hires

a spin doctor. Even the psychos, obsessed with media stardom, employ big-shot

defense lawyers who fight for movie and book rights. When one of the wackos

claims insanity-an idea he gets from a guest on Roseanne -you know an American justice system based on media madness

has gone to hell in a sound bite.

Up to a point, 15 Minutes

is gritty enough to be a viable thriller and surreal enough to be a glaring,

in-your-face sendup of today’s corrosive media landscape in a cinéma vérité style. But eventually, Mr.

Herzfeld the director loses his grip to Mr. Herzfeld the writer, and the movie

jumps all over the place at cross purposes with itself. In a subplot I am

obligated to withhold, Mr. De Niro meets a fate unworthy of a Dick Tracy

comic-strip villain and the film never regains its footing. This is not a

star-driven action vehicle; it’s a black comedy about the feeding frenzy

created by a hyperventilating media that is clearly out of control, in which

there are no heroes-just hacks desperate for their 15 minutes on camera, with

barrels of gut-wrenching violence thrown in for distraction.

In these circumstances, two actors I’ve never heard of

literally steal the picture. Karel Roden as Emil, the Czech bank robber who

would massacre a Saturday-night crowd in Times Square for a chance to be

interviewed by Cokie and Sam on Sunday morning, and Oleg Taktarov as his

movie-maven Russian sidekick, Oleg, are on the screen as often as Mr. De Niro

and Mr. Burns, which shows you how confused and fragmented the movie is. They

literally chew whatever scenery isn’t nailed down, demanding-and getting-most

of the attention. Andy Warhol was right: Sooner or later, everybody will be

famous for 15 minutes. Your turn is next.

Samuel Jackson, Homeless and Hairy

The Caveman’s

Valentine is another preposterous muddle masquerading as a crime thriller.

This time Samuel L. Jackson, weighted down under 40 pounds of dreadlocks, plays

Romulus, a filthy, disenfranchised former musician turned homeless bum who

lives in a cave in the middle of New York City. (Duh.) When a junkie hustler is

found frozen, hanging from a tree outside the cave, Romulus decides to solve

the case. This is more complicated than it seems, since Romulus speaks in an

incoherent language that is half mumbo-jumbo and half J. Alfred Prufrock. Worse

still, his embarrassed and estranged daughter is a New York police officer.

(Duh.)

But this is the movies, where a grotesque madman can hear

voices, see visions, blame everything on an invisible Mephistopheles called

Stuyvesant and sincerely believe Hell is located in the light on top of the

Empire State Building, and still miraculously find sponsors in a fabulous

penthouse where the society set encourages him to use the shower, the Ralph

Lauren towels and the Boesendorfer to play a classical concerto. Ah, those guys

and gals at Denise Rich’s parties are such suckers for Scriabin.

Eventually, this crazy wacko invades the celebrity-studded

art world of a famous photographer (Colm Feore) suspected of torturing the

hustler to death, sleeps with the photographer’s sister (Ann Magnuson) and

becomes the protégé of a bankruptcy lawyer (Anthony Michael Hall) who has a

passion for lime rickeys. Nobody raises an eyebrow. “Hey, Caveman, this

detective work-with all due respect, maybe it’s not for you,” says the chief

police officer investigating the case. Before The Caveman’s Valentine mercifully ends, we are treated to the

sight of a naked boy strung up on a meat hook to an aria by Donizetti and

imaginary moth seraphs the size of helicopters flying around Romulus’

dreadlocks.

This ludicrous mix of neo-Gothic NYPD Blue and Grand Guignol was directed by Kasi Lemmons, whose

promising debut film, Eve’s Bayou ,

also starred Mr. Jackson but fared much better. She is still unpredictable and

he is still blissfully ignorant of all limitations, but The Caveman’s Valentine is dead in the water from start to finish.

The point, I guess, is “Take the time to look behind the façade of even the

most repugnant creature on the street, and you might find a sensitive,

talented, intelligent lost soul behind the dirt.” Show me a cave dwelling in

Central Park and I’ll volunteer hot coffee and Krispy Kremes, but I have yet to

meet a raving homeless nut on the streets of Manhattan who could play a

Scriabin piano concerto.

Spies Like Woody

Allen

Company Man , an alleged farce that has been gathering dust on a lab shelf for two

years, is beyond description. (That is not a recommendation.) The diabolical

brain child of Douglas McGrath, a former staff writer for Saturday Night Live , it’s a deadly fiasco about a wimpy grammar

teacher and driver’s-ed instructor from Greenwich, Conn., named Quimp

(shamelessly played by Mr. McGrath) who pretends to be a secret agent with the

C.I.A. to impress his shrewish, social-climbing wife (Sigourney Weaver). When a

Russian ballet dancer (Ryan Phillippe) defects in his student-driver vehicle,

the C.I.A., to avoid embarrassment, puts Quimp on the payroll. (Duh.)

Sparing you the labored and contrived details, we cut to the

chase: This dope ends up in a revolution just as a swishy, flamboyant Batista

(Alan Cumming) is being overthrown by a strutting, numbskull Castro (Anthony

LaPaglia) in an unnamed Third World banana republic. (Duh.) Within a mere 81

minutes that seem more like 81 days, the imbecilic Quimp catches a spy (Denis

Leary) who confesses just to stop him from diagramming his sentences, and

fights the Communists with the aid of a mad guerrilla (John Turturro) while Ms.

Weaver writes the whole thing down for a trashy first-person best seller. Woody

Allen drops in from time to time in a Pepe le Moko Casbah beret as a nutty

government agent who lost his book of secret codes in a Russian brothel,

resulting in the hanging of 45 C.I.A. operatives. The moronic cast members end

up impersonating a rock band during the Bay of Pigs, and Marilyn Monroe and

President John F. Kennedy are among the period celebs disgraced before it all

grinds to a welcome halt.

It’s a rare opportunity to see so many accomplished people

coerced into making such donkeys of themselves, and Mr. McGrath is the bottom

feeder. As the writer-director of the Jane Austen movie Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow, he won deserving praise, but as the star

and co-director (with Peter Askin) of this abomination, he displays no talent

whatsoever. He hasn’t a shred of screen charisma and demonstrates zero

knowledge of such basic requirements as how to deliver a punch line or where to

move the camera. Company Man is like

a long, painful, Percodan-deprived Saturday

Night Live skit directed by NBC ushers and is about as amusing as

testicular cancer.

Westchester Story

Suburb , a cheerful

off-Broadway musical at the York Theatre in the Citicorp Building, is aimed at

New Yorkers seeking the small-town peace of mind that comes with soda fountains

on Main Street, shady lawns, lower school taxes and an S.U.V. in every garage.

Stuart (James Ludwig) is an account manager in advertising who longs for

chlorophyll and ragweed pollen while his pregnant wife, Alison (Jacquelyn

Piro), is content with subways, panhandlers and traffic jams. Neither has a

clue what horrors lurk in suburbia. Alix Korey, the punchy comedienne with a

voice of stainless steel who plays the aggressive real estate broker with

“collagen lips and post-partum hips” hell-bent on selling them their dream

house, isn’t about to tell them until the house is in escrow and her commission

is in the bank.

The songs are, predictably, about lawnmowers, do-it-yourself

home repairs (“What good is a castle / Without any hassle?”), commuter trains,

shopping malls and backyard barbecues. The score by Robert Cohen and David

Javerbaum, which recently won the Richard Rodgers Development Award, features

witty rhymes set to less-than-memorable melodies, and the eight-member cast

includes Jennie Eisenhower, the perky daughter of Julie Nixon and David

Eisenhower and the granddaughter of President Richard Nixon.

The entire ensemble works hard under the pleasant direction

of Jennifer Uphoff Gray, but the charming, handsome and thoroughly ingenuous

James Ludwig and the brassy, hilarious Ms. Korey are outstanding. They’ve both

been dressing up these little off-Broadway musicals too long. Isn’t it

perfectly obvious they’re ready for Broadway stardom?