Three Men and a Babe Meet at McCool’s

Harald Zwart’s One

Night at McCool’s , from a screenplay by the late Stan Seidel (1952-2000),

is the kind of movie that, as I was watching it, I was preparing to dismiss as

a broad, cartoonish sex farce, straining for

as many cheap laughs as it could get this side of Three Stooges–like

smuttiness. That is, until its wow ending, with one of the funniest and most

imaginative sight gags I have seen since the golden age of the great silent

clowns. Obviously, I can’t and won’t tell you what it is, or even hint at it,

because that would eliminate the elements of shock and surprise that make it so

hilarious. So don’t read the reviews and gossip columns, and stay away from the

Internet know-it-alls who love to spoil everyone else’s fun.

See the movie first, even though you may find, as I did, Liv

Tyler’s second-string siren, Jewel, too literal and derivative as the

lace-edged lure for three oversexed and dim-witted knights in tarnished armor

named Randy (Matt Dillon), Carl (Paul Reiser) and Detective Dehling (John

Goodman). Randy starts off the foolishness by searching for a hitman named Mr.

Burmeister (Michael Douglas) in a St. Louis bingo parlor. When Randy finds

Burmeister, they play bingo together while Randy explains why he is paying

Burmeister $10,000 to kill Jewel. Flash back to McCool’s, where Randy works as

a big-hit college-town bartender who serves drinks with a toilet plunger. This

low-rent parody of Tom Cruise’s bartending dexterity in Cocktail (1988) lasts no longer than the time it takes to cut to

closing time. Indeed, McCool’s disappears as a setting after this first and

last night of Randy’s career as a bartender.

Randy’s cousin Carl drunkenly urges Randy to join him in

some after-hours amusements, since Carl’s wife and child are away visiting her

mother. Randy declines and is instead thrust

into a situation where he rescues Jewel from an apparent rape attack. We learn

later that Jewel is in cahoots with her alleged “rapist” in a convoluted scheme

by which the two prey on chivalrous saps like Randy. The killing starts right

after the sex, with Jewel shooting her confederate just as he is about to shoot

Randy. We gradually realize that Jewel is consumer-crazy and has fallen in love

with the ramshackle house that Randy has inherited from his late mother, along

with two snow globes reminiscent of the maternal emblems in Citizen Kane (1941).

As Randy continues his flashback narrative to an attentive

Burmeister, Carl and Detective Dehling become enmeshed in the silken web woven

by Jewel. They begin telling their

stories, Carl to a sexy psychiatrist played by Reba McEntire with the leggy

suggestiveness with which we have become familiar in The Sopranos . Carl, however, is too besotted with the leather and

whips provided by Jewel in her dominatrix phase to make a play for the provocative lady shrink. For his part, Detective

Dehling is easily seduced by Jewel while he is investigating two of her

murders. He confides in his brother, a priest known as Father Jimmy (Richard

Jenkins), who is horny as all get out as he presses his brother for all the

lascivious details, wrenching his collar loose in the process. This lecherous

priest received more than his share of cheap laughs. Too easy, I kept saying to

myself, too easy-but then I was swept away by the aforementioned ending, and I

began to wonder if I had missed something in the movie in my haste to dismiss

it.

Could it be that the slick direction of Mr. Zwart, and the

wildly satiric script by Seidel, to whom the film is dedicated, had more grace,

wit and substance than I had imagined? A merely brilliant ending can do that to

you; an explosively funny ending is rarer still. Still, I don’t care. Ms. Tyler

lacks the magic this slight exercise in style requires to transcend its

built-in limitations. It is not that she fails to project a physical

desirability in her person, nor that she is incapable of expressing a womanly

cunning without an excess of fatuous narcissism. It is simply that she cannot intuit

a forceful consistency in her characterizations to bind together the many

guises she is asked to assume.

The other characters are left adrift in a sea of gratuitous

gunfire that leaves One Night at McCool’s

somewhere between the cinema of Robert Rodriguez and the cinema of the Farrelly

brothers, with its tongue ever so distractingly deep in its cheek. Much of the

credit or blame should go to what appears to be a long-range artistic strategy

of co-producers Michael Douglas and Allison Lyon Segan, based on their readings

of popular taste. Right or wrong, they at least seem to have a plan in the

midst of the almost hopeless chaos that passes nowadays as mainstream

movie-making.

A Murky Nabokov

Adaptation

Marleen Gorris’ The

Luzhin Defence , from the screenplay by Peter Berry, based on the novel by

Vladimir Nabokov, brings some warmth and consolation to the cold Nabokovian

world of obsessive existence, but at perhaps too high a price in lost

believability. After all, what is the point of adapting Nabokov at all if one

cannot swallow his most bitter pills of perception? Yet one can understand why

John Turturro and Emily Watson were attracted to the roles of troubled chess

genius Alexander Luzhin and Natalia, the beautiful daughter of Russian émigré

parents, who falls in love with Luzhin despite the objections of her mother,

Vera, and despite Luzhin’s seemingly insurmountable social maladroitness. In

movie terms, it’s not exactly a case of Beauty and the Beast, but at least

Beauty and the Hyper-Nerd.

What is more clear in the novel than in the film is how

deeply Nabokov identifies with Luzhin’s obsession with chess. In this respect,

Nabokov is much harder on Natalia than Ms. Gorris and Mr. Berry are in the

movie. Indeed, Nabokov’s Natalia is shown to be a bit foolish in thinking that

Luzhin can eventually turn his chess genius to other aspects of life, and thus

be a huge success in anything he undertakes. On the printed page, Natalia never

appreciates how much chess has drained away from Luzhin’s ability to cope with

the simplest tasks of normal life. He has no friends, no conversation, not even

much awareness of his own appearance in public. He is a social misfit and a

mental cripple. Yet, Natalia sees something in his gleaming eyes at the chess

table that she thinks she can harness for her own happiness. As it turns out,

she is fatally mistaken.

In the film, Ms. Watson endows Natalia with a beautiful,

nurturing quality that makes us want her to connect with Mr. Turturro’s gawky

Luzhin. This rise in emotional temperature is something movies often do to

books-not in the way of conscious betrayal, but in the natural order of things

in the transition from a comparatively cerebral medium to an inescapably

visceral one. Hence, the potential union of Luzhin and Natalia is of less

import in the novel than it is in the film. Some critics complained that the

movie did not do justice to the chess being played. I do not know how that

could have been done with any precision in normal movie time. Ms. Gorris

performs some striking visual gymnastics on the chess board to suggest how

chess masters think many moves ahead. Yet, though Nabokov himself knew a great

deal about chess, he did not end his book-as the movie does-with a posthumous

vindication of Luzhin and his defense by dragging Natalia to the chess board.

The movie also fails to

record one of the interesting subtexts of the novel, and that is the grotesque

impression made by colonies of Russian exiles abroad, who speak Russian and

thus contribute to Luzhin’s feverish feeling of dislocation. This is something

the eternally traumatized Nabokov understood firsthand and never entirely

eliminated from his exquisite prose. Finally, Luzhin’s madness reminds me of no

one so much as Bobby Fischer, whose chess genius did not leave him much room to

be a human being. Still, The Luzhin

Defence is well worth seeing for Mr. Turturro and Ms. Watson.

Great Cinema: Greek

and Italian

Anthology Film Archives is presenting, from May 4-10, a

program of 17 recent Greek films which I-and maybe you-should see for both

ethnic and artistic reasons. There is reportedly nothing quaint or folksy about

these works, of which I have seen only one, Tonia Marketaki’s The Price of Love (1984), playing May 8,

which I recommend to Greek and non-Greek viewers alike. The Price of Love presents the dark side of the dowry system

celebrated joyously in John Ford’s The

Quiet Man (1952). The setting is the island of Corfu at the turn of the

century, when Greece was nominally independent under a constitutional monarchy,

but economically dominated by a consortium of the Great Powers. Greek cabinets

rise and fall with chaotic regularity. A young couple see their love wither

away because of endless squabbles over the girl’s dowry. There are no easy

villains, only ancient anxieties that recall stories my father and mother told

me about life in the provinces.

The other films are Day Off , Desire , The Love of Ulysses ,

Jaguar , Edge of Night , Life on Sale ,

The Red Daisy , Love Wanders in the Night , A

Drop in the Ocean , Eastern Territory ,

The Very Poor , Inc. , The Canary Yellow

Bicycle , Cheap Smokes , I Like Hearts Like Mine and 2000+1 Shots . (Call 505-5181 for show

dates and show times.)

I would also like to call belated attention to the

Guggenheim’s magnificent program entitled

Conversations Between Shadows and Light , featuring some of the great

Italian cinematographers known around the world, such as Vittorio Storaro and

Giuseppe Rotunno. The series began on April 4 and runs through July 28. (Call

423-3500 for dates and show times.)