Old Dog Loves New Trick, A Ploy for Seducing Singletons

Paul and Chris Weitz’s About a Boy , from the screenplay by Peter Hedges and Messrs. Weitz, based on the book by Nick Hornby, gets most of its laughs from the evolved expertise of Hugh Grant in playing characters that audiences enjoy seeing taken down a peg or two as a punishment for philandering and womanizing and simply being too handsome for words-and with an English accent besides. Here he tackles a particularly irresponsible rascal named Will, a 38-year-old London male butterfly who actually boasts of his own shallowness while shunning emotional commitments like a dread disease. A freakish bequest from his otherwise musically untalented songwriter father, whose only 10-strike was a mediocre Christmas jingle that swept the country, has made Will wealthy enough to enjoy a life of hedonistic indolence for as long as Christmas continues to be celebrated in Britain. The cream of the jest is that Will can’t stand to hear his father’s stupid song. Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth and spitting at it!

The seduction of single women takes up most of Will’s nights, but lately he’s found it increasingly difficult to break the bad news to conquests he has decided to dump. Then one night, a single mom with whom he’s enjoyed a fling turns the tables on him by tearfully and regretfully dumping him a moment before he could begin dumping her. By now in his comically sadomasochistic career, Mr. Grant has developed perfect timing; he feigns sincerity and gets the biggest laughs.

This old dog loves to learn new tricks. His painless experience with the single mom leads him to stalk his prey at SPAT-Single Parents Alone Together. Looking for new pleasures, Will poses as a single dad who’s left his 2-year-old at home with a sitter and invades the single-parent support group. But instead of yummy mummies, he’s confronted with an array of losers. Here the movie settles for some cheap giggles at the expense of unattractive women who’ve been abandoned by their husbands. Before the misogyny can be worked too hard, Will is thrust into the company of Fiona (Toni Collette), her awkward 12-year-old son Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), Fiona’s best friend Suzie (Victoria Smurfit), and her own little girl, Megan. Will is much more taken with Suzie than with Fiona, who is too much a washed-out hippie for his taste. But Marcus, who becomes a co-protagonist with his own interior monologue, has other plans for Will: He wants him not as his mother’s boyfriend, but as his own surrogate father.

Will the stalker finds himself stalked by Marcus, and in the process becomes slowly attached to the boy for a few laughs and a big payoff in sentiment. It’s something of a surprise when Suzie drops Will because he lied about having a 2-year-old. But Will falls seriously in love with Rachel (Rachel Weisz), an artistically talented single mom with an insanely jealous boy of her own named Ali (Augustus Prew), who threatens to kill Marcus if Will, who has been posing as his father, tries to move in with him and Rachel. The Ali-Marcus scenes are alone worth the price of admission: hilarious riffs on the fierce possessiveness of single-parent children.

The film is not without its flaws. The school scenes in which Marcus is tormented for being “different” are forced and half-hearted. It’s never made clear why Fiona is endlessly despondent (she even attempts suicide), and the sudden romance of Will and Rachel seems like an afterthought designed to erase our memory of Will’s swinish behavior. This is to say that Rachel is a prize Will hardly deserves.

In the end, the film comes over as a messy delight, thanks to the skill, generosity and good-sport, punching-bag panache of Mr. Grant’s performance.

Almost Like Vertigo

Michael Apted’s Enigma , from a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, based on the novel by Robert Harris, is the first film in my experience even to mention the Soviet Katyn massacre of Polish army officers during World War II. In all the current talk about atrocities here and there, it’s well to remember that until the stench from the corpses became intolerable, the Anglo-American left did its utmost to conceal Stalin’s mass-homicidal crimes.

The generally underrated Enigma reminded me also of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Code-breaking specialist Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott) becomes obsessed to the point of a nervous breakdown after being rejected by femme fatale Claire Romilly (Saffron Burrows), and then finds recovery and redemption in the arms of bespectacled Hester Wallace (Kate Winslet). It’s as if James Stewart had been sensible enough to accept Barbara Bel Geddes’ proffered love, and thus had cured himself of his ruinous infatuation with the literally duplicitous Kim Novak.

Tom’s obsession with Claire is tangled up with the mystery of her disappearance and the possibility that British code secrets have been betrayed to the Germans. The high-tech mumbo-jumbo about Enigma and Shark code machines comes off as something more than one of Hitchcock’s MacGuffins-that is, a mere pretext to generate suspense. Cracking the Enigma code contributed mightily to winning the war against Hitler, and the achievement was not adequately appreciated and commemorated until long afterwards. That, however, is not what the film is really about.

Mr. Apted, Mr. Stoppard and Mr. Harris have collaborated on a series of spectacles that suggest the high stakes in this episode in the history of cryptanalysis. The Germans here are treated with great dignity and sobriety as they go about the task of sinking Allied ships, or recording the identities of Polish officers buried at Katyn. Jeremy Northam plays the debonair spy-catcher Wigram with just a touch of tension-easing comic relief. The anti-Hitchcockian ending stresses ambiguity over lucidity, except for the romantically satisfying union of Tom and Hester. Enigma is anything but enigmatic about affairs of the heart, and is well worth seeing for its elective affinities alone.

Self-Hating Jew

Henry Bean’s The Believer , from Mr. Bean’s own screenplay, based on a story by Mr. Bean and Mark Jacobson, was inspired by the real-life (and death) drama of Daniel Burros, who lived in Ozone Park, Queens, and was a member of the American Nazi Party and later King Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan for New York City. When Burros was interviewed by a reporter for The New York Times and confronted with evidence that he was himself a Jew, he warned the reporter, “You print that in The New York Times , I’ll kill you, and I’ll kill myself.” The story ran all the same, and Burros went upstairs and shot himself: “Twice. Once in the chest, and, when that didn’t work, a second time in the head.”

This grim story is recounted in Mr. Bean’s introduction to the published screenplay, which is subtitled “Confronting Jewish Self-Hatred.” This is a term that was coined about the time of the Burros suicide in 1965. After widespread criticism of The Times for printing the story, two of its rising journalists, Abe Rosenthal and Arthur Gelb, collaborated on a book entitled One More Victim , arguing that Burros’ suicide was a product of Jewish self-hatred in the wake of Nazi genocide (the word “Holocaust” was not yet in common usage). Burros, Mr. Rosenthal and Mr. Gelb asserted, was a victim of Hitler, not of The New York Times .

Elsewhere in his introduction, Mr. Bean describes his own skeptical position vis-à-vis Israel and Zionism as one akin to what Philip Roth has designated as “diasporatic.” This would be enough in some Israeli circles for Mr. Bean and Mr. Roth to be branded “self-hating Jews.” There’s very little said about Israel in The Believer , but a great deal of ranting about how Jews are prone to being victimized. Indeed, the early images of the film show Ryan Gosling’s Danny Balint stalking a Jewish student wearing a yarmulke and giving this unresisting victim a beating, accompanied by much taunting. Later, in a flashback, we learn that Danny was previously a rebellious yeshiva student, questioning God’s command that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac. The story of the Jewish Nazi skinhead is retold from inside the Jewish experience. Mr. Bean’s Danny has no connection with the Klan, and there’s only one brief racist encounter with African-Americans. The rest is one obscene anti-Semitic epithet after another. In fact, when Danny is recruited by a shadowy fascist organization meeting at the home of Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell), the leader of the group, Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane), advises Danny to soft-pedal his outdated, virulent anti-Semitism for tactical reasons. Perhaps the tenacity with which Mr. Bean has been developing The Believer over a 20-year period may account for a certain fuzziness in Danny’s character, and his seeming nostalgia for his yeshiva roots.

Mr. Gosling, so charismatic as the student murderer in Murder by Numbers , holds The Believer together by the sheer force of his personality. His Danny can play rough with Lina’s daughter, Carla (Summer Phoenix), and make her like it, and the audience accept it, since they are immediately distracted by Danny’s proficiency in Hebrew and his ability to teach it to the curious girl.

Still, the objection can be made that what little we get of Danny’s backstory fails to close the gap between the truculent yeshiva student he was and the Nazi skinhead he became. Danny Burros, like Danny Balint, was an aberration of history. The fact that he existed is not sufficient to make him an adequate model for a dramatic character. Besides, what little motivation Mr. Bean gives to Mr. Balint depends on the alleged tendency of Jews to give up without a fight, to walk into the ovens without making a fuss. But what has this to do with a few million Israelis who have managed to enrage a few billion people around the world? There’s certainly no Israeli reluctance to defend the country’s existence. Was not their will to fight in the Middle East forged in the furnaces of the Nazi death camps?

The point is that Mr. Bean’s diagnosis of Jewish self-hatred in The Believer may be misdirected in the present circumstances. And with all due deference to the diasporists, there seem to be many non-elitist Jews who need soil under their feet to stand tall.