Naughty Nicole

Nicole Kidman is on a reconnaissance mission-to rescue her own career. With both the noisy, hysterical, over-the-top faux musical Moulin Rouge and the serenely haunting The Others still jockeying for Oscar position, the freshly liberated ex–Mrs. Tom Cruise takes a dramatic left turn with yet another new film, Birthday Girl . She was woefully miscast as a tubercular, dreamy-eyed temptress who couldn’t sing or dance in Moulin Rouge , but her tough, enigmatic, street-smart character in Birthday Girl has both feet solidly grounded. She’s full of surprises, and so is the movie.

Witty and slick, this second feature by British director Jez ( Mojo ) Butterworth is a deceptively clever romantic comedy that is also part caper, part thriller and a perfect vehicle for both Ms. Kidman and her talented co-star, Ben Chaplin. He plays John Buckingham, a dull, nerdy bank clerk for whom every day is Monday. Lonely and desperately unlucky in love, John swallows his pride and surfs the Web for a Russian mail-order bride. She’s Nicole Kidman-a pale, chain-smoking goth who doesn’t speak a word of English. He takes her home, but it’s a disaster.

While his emergency calls to the Internet agency that set them up go unanswered, Nadia rifles through his apartment and finds his porno tapes, seductively fulfilling his secret sexual fantasies. But domestic bliss is shattered by the arrival of Nadia’s two male “cousins,” who show up unannounced to celebrate her birthday. They turn violent, demand money and threaten to kill her. Naïve but honorable, John robs his own bank to save her life, innocently unaware that Nadia is part of the gang.

John is just the latest victim in a string of gullible men they’ve robbed. John’s life is turned upside-down, but this movie is just getting started. The gang breaks up and John’s rage turns to pity for the broke, abandoned and pregnant Nadia. With the police in hot pursuit, the mild-mannered nerd has to track down the thugs, rescue the girl, recover the stolen money, and restore his dignity and reputation. But if you think movies still separate the good guys from the villains in time for a happy resolution, you have amnesia. Nothing ends the way you expect it to in Birthday Girl , and the biggest shock of all is yet to come. Whatever else you might think, you can’t label it predictable.

As the dour, repressed and anally retentive John, Mr. Chaplin creates a memorable portrait of a perfect Mr. Nice Guy, surprising even himself with the kind of doughy bravado he must summon to save the day and get the girl. Ms. Kidman is gorgeous even with black, stringy hair and a wardrobe so ugly Courtney Love wouldn’t wear it on a dare in broad daylight. She’s also sexually fearless, and her Russian is flawless. Vincent Cassel and Mathieu Kassovitz, as the scruffy Soviet dudes who keep the action moving, lend powerful support. Not a great movie, but a quirky, agreeable and most entertaining one that further validates my faith in Nicole Kidman as that rarest of film creations-an actress of great beauty and startling versatility who is unafraid to take risks, never rests on her laurels, and strives to be more than just another pretty face.

Something

To Forget

Drowning in marshmallow fluff soured by bubble-gum rock, the teenage tearjerker A Walk to Remember is as riveting as a cement floor and as predictable as plum sauce in a Chinese restaurant. Shane West, a teeny-bopper cover boy who can actually act (on ABC’s wonderful Once and Again , he has more than held his own every week opposite some of the best actors on the tube), specializes in troubled, rebellious, antisocial teenagers with an underlying decency. He plays another one here, but, without sensitive and naturalistic dialogue, he’s lost as a clam at sea.

In the opening scene, he’s established as a rich, spoiled North Carolina high-school hunk who goads a blindfolded classmate into jumping off a bridge, then smashes up his convertible (red, natch) in the ensuing police chase. As part of his punishment, he is forced to play the lead in the school musical opposite a minister’s daughter who helps others, sings in the church choir and reads the Bible. This dork is played by a gooey, catatonic singer named Mandy Moore, who, I was informed by the teenagers around me at the press screening, also works as a host on MTV. She is strongly urged to hold onto her day job.

To make a torturously long story mercifully short, the impishly cool dude and the insufferably nice minister’s daughter gag their way through the kind of romantic idealism that makes exemplary citizens out of them both. She learns that there is more to life than elevator music and homework; he learns patience, kindness, selflessness and the value of lip-locking. Then the cookie jar breaks, and a mysterious Ali MacGraw movie disease crawls out of the cracks.

Shane West deserves better material than the soporific script by Karen Janszen and stronger professional guidance than the lame direction by Adam Shankman. Mandy Moore is simply awful in a role that Katie Holmes was too smart to play. The wasted adults in this forgettable fiasco are Peter Coyote as the girl’s overprotective father and a bewilderingly haggard Daryl Hannah as the boy’s divorced mother, now looking like one of the undead in a zombie movie. A Walk to Remember is so boring that even its target audience talked all the way through it. “He’s got crabs,” “She’s gonna die” and “Uh-oh, it’s a walk to forget” were some of the teenage comments near me. The credits claim the movie was based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks. If that’s true, it must be the kind of book that is best read aloud-to the deaf.

Who Is This

Carson McCullers?

Carson McCullers, a friend and adviser whose personal courage was as inspirational to me as her literary output, was one of the dozen or so American writers to reach the top echelons of greatness. She used to greet me at the door of her house in Nyack-a Southern Gothic Victorian job the color of vanilla ice cream and across the street from Helen Hayes and the Methodist Church-in long white nightgowns and tennis shoes. Everything about her was as eccentric, lost and lonely as any of the tortured characters she created in short stories, plays and novels like The Member of the Wedding , The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter , Reflections in a Golden Eye and The Ballad of the Sad Café .

She was a legend almost from the beginning-a wiry slip of a girl with bangs and a crooked-tooth grin in a baseball cap who, at 17, arrived in New York from Georgia to become a concert pianist, lost her tuition money to Juilliard on the subway, and ended up in a boarding house for sailors on the Brooklyn waterfront. When her first novel was published in 1940, she became the troubled darling of fashionable people like Edith Sitwell and Cecil Beaton and helped establish an arty salon in an old Brooklyn brownstone called February House, where the boarders included Christopher Isherwood, Paul and Jane Bowles, Richard Wright, Thomas Mann’s son Golo, Oliver Smith and Gypsy Rose Lee. W.H. Auden kept house, and they all chipped in on groceries to feed Leonard Bernstein, Anaïs Nin, Marc Blitzstein, Aaron Copland and Salvador Dalí.

After falling victim to a conspiracy of troubles, she suffered, at 23, the first in a series of strokes that led to pneumonia, paralysis, temporary blindness, cancer, rheumatic fever, acute cardiac failure and everything but the will to endure. Still she drank champagne and ate raw oysters with Isak Dinesen, kept a room upstairs for Tennessee Williams, danced on a marble tabletop with Marilyn Monroe in her arms until the table collapsed, and wrote one final novel with one finger on a broken typewriter. I was granted the last interview she ever gave, shortly before she died in 1967. The New York Times called it “Frankie Addams at 50.” I always felt there was a great and fascinating play to be written about this colorful oddball with piercing vision and a soul like a chalice of compassion for all the pain and suffering in the human heart. Carson McCullers (Historically Inaccurate) by Sarah Schulman, staged by the Women’s Project and Playwright’s Horizon, is not it.

It’s historically inaccurate, all right. Also dramatically incoherent to the point of incomprehensibility and theatrically dead on arrival. The facts are wrong, the characters invented, the dialogue imbecilic, the direction by Marion McClinton practically bizarre to the point of surrealism. The whole thing trashes the memory of a great writer without a flicker of enlightened knowledge. Carson was once described by Truman Capote as “diagonally parked in a parallel universe,” but she was not a raving, violent, suicidal, self-pitying lesbian trading vulgar sex stories with Ethel Waters during the rehearsals for The Member of the Wedding or trying to seduce some fictional actress playing Frankie Addams. Julie Harris, who made history in the role onstage and on-screen, should sue.

The only reason to wince your way through this sorry and miserable mistake is the luminous performance by Jenny Bacon, who captures the essence of a tormented sparrow with broken wings and a flame of genius flickering brightly from deep within (and even looks like Carson). Ms. Bacon is full of fire and pain and passion. Everything else is a mess. I’m not the only one who thinks so. It’s closing Feb. 3, and not a moment too soon, if you ask me.