This year, movies are like botany. Summer blooms are opening a month early, and so are the brainless vacation blockbusters. So, boys and girls, gather around while I tell you about Spider-Man , in the hope that you won’t have to find out for yourselves.
When I was a kid, I collected Captain Marvel and Superman , and considered Spider-Man a bus-and-truck version of Batman , so I know nothing about the Marvel Comics by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Judging from the dopey, lavishly overproduced new movie directed by Sam Raimi, I’d guess Spider-Man was an action hero created to enthrall readers under the age of 10. (By 10, I had graduated from Nancy and Sluggo to Archie, Betty and Veronica.) So I am just now catching up in time to discover what looks like about a trillion dollars’ worth of digital effects and 25 cents’ worth of plot.
By day, he is Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), a goony, bespectacled and conveniently orphaned college nerd with a special passion for arachnids, who lives with his kindly aunt and uncle (Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson) in an ugly row house in Queens. One day on a class science outing, he’s bitten by a genetically altered spider, and when he wakes up the next morning, toned and magnetized with camera-ready pecs, he’s been transformed from a human tweezer into-Pow! Zowie!- Spider-Man ! With revitalized superhuman strength, the shy egghead now flattens the bullies in the school cafeteria, climbs buildings, scales walls and flies from roof to roof on spider webs that shoot from his fingers like cotton-candy clotheslines. Crawling with subcutaneous insect juice, he is at last ready to trap New York’s rats and hoods in his webs and win the admiration of Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the unattainable girl next-door who plays Lois Lane to his Clark Kent.
None of this is as easy at it looks. Spider-Man’s archenemy in fighting the criminal underworld is an evil nemesis called the Green Goblin. By day, he is a benevolent tycoon (Willem Dafoe) and the father of Peter’s best friend, Harry (Golden Globe winner James Franco, the chiseled newcomer who scored memorably in the recent television biopic about James Dean). By night, he can fly, too-but his motives are destruction and death. The Green Goblin looks like a laminated praying mantis wearing an Islanders mask. This maleficent monster sprays a toxic insecticide that is lethal to Spider-Man as he wreaks havoc on the space program, the board of directors of his own corporation and especially Mary Jane. The movie works best when it’s funny (“What is that thing?” “I dunno, but somebody’s got to stop it!”), and the funniest actor in it is not Mr. Dafoe, who hisses like a leaky radiator, but J.K. Simmons, who has sprouted a full head of hair in a versatile turnaround from the bald sexual predator he plays on Oz . Mr. Simmons plays the ruthless, cliché-spouting, penny-pinching editor of the Daily Bugle , the sensation-seeking metropolitan rag where Peter works as a photographer. While nobody seems to wonder why Peter is the only cameraman in town who ever gets a picture of the web-spinning Spider-Man in action, Mary Jane knows there is something about Spider-Man’s kiss that she just can’t put a finger on.
And so it goes, with the villain blowing up the cable on the tram to Roosevelt Island, Mary Jane hanging from the 59th Street Bridge and Spider-Man in a dilemma about saving them all in one swoop. In the end, the secret of Spider-Man’s true identity wins out over romance. Get ready for the sequel.
Despite all the technology, the special effects are cheesy, and despite the attempts to bring the characters to human dimensions, the actors are upstaged by the noise. Tobey Maguire’s open-faced, saucer-eyed innocence worked to better advantage in The Cider House Rules and The Ice Storm . As Spider-Man, he’s merely an inarticulate pawn. I liked Kirsten Dunst better as a blonde. As a sweater-girl sweetheart in garish red Dynel hair, she looks strangely tough and chalky. Willem Dafoe chews scenery even when you can’t see his teeth. Cliff Robertson is the warmest, nicest uncle a spider ever had, but what can you do with lines like “With great power comes great responsibility”? The great Rosemary Harris, clearly on board for a handsome paycheck, bakes cookies and knits.
In Spider-Man , the stunt men do all the work. What to say about the silly but not fanciful enough script by David Koepp? He wrote the screenplay for one of my favorite movies ( Apartment Zero ). He also wrote one of the worst movies of all time ( Mission: Impossible ). I’m glad he’s rich. Send the children to Spider-Man and stay home with Six Feet Under .
Woody Goes To Hollywood
For grown-up laughs, a moment of genuflection, please, for the continuing brilliance of Woody Allen. Hollywood Ending is his best film in years. After flirtations with Ingmar Bergman, Chekhov and German Impressionism, Woody has returned to top form, tweaking Hollywood filmmaking with the kind of fresh ideas, hilarious dialogue and classy satirical flourishes that can only blossom from a truly original mind.
Before the bouncy strains of Bing Crosby singing “Going Hollywood” fade, neurotic, self-destructive Val Waxman (Woody), a once-great Oscar-winning director of critically acclaimed art films now reduced to shooting geriatric diaper commercials, is offered a chance to make a comeback with a gritty $60 million gangster epic filmed on location in New York. He needs the job, and his sleazy agent (director Mark Rydell) gets him “half a million plus one-tenth of a percentage point after quadruple break-even.” But the film is being financed by the slick, handsome studio chief (Treat Williams) who stole Val’s now ex-wife, Ellie (Téa Leoni), and Val’s own live-in bimbo (Debra Messing from Will and Grace ) demands a role in the picture herself-all of which drives his jealousy, shingles, heart palpitations, back problems, hearing loss, broken rotator cuff and ulcers into a Code 3 crisis.
Problems plague the film from the start. Val wants to make it in black and white with a Cole Porter score, like a … well, Woody Allen movie. The production designer (Isaac Mizrahi) wants to rebuild Harlem, Central Park and the Empire State Building. The costumer (Marian Seldes) is a Diana Vreeland clone who abhors every color but pink. The Chinese cameraman only speaks Mandarin. Worse, there’s a journalist on the set covering the 10-week shoot for Esquire . But the coup de grâce is delivered the first day, when the director goes neurotically, psychosomatically blind.
Nobody plays frustration, like a wrinkled pug that has just been petted backwards, better than Woody. Muddling through it all with only his ex-wife in on the secret, Woody has created enough wacky pratfalls and delicious slapstick situations for himself and the beautiful, brainy and talented Ms. Leoni to catapult them both into a comedy dream team. By the time anyone gets a look at the rushes, it’s a disaster all around-until, that is, Val, like Jerry Lewis, gets discovered by the French! It’s sort of a Hollywood ending with escargot, which is not the least of Woody’s inside jokes.
Ms. Leoni is the most glamorous Seeing Eye dog a sightless, card-carrying nut case ever had. Mr. Rydell is just perfect as the agent who will do anything to get his 10 percent and doesn’t mind bending the rules because he doesn’t have any. Curvaceous Tiffani Amber Thiessen has a lovely bit as the sexy leading lady who isn’t secure or comfortable until she seduces the blind director, who feels her breasts and thinks they’re sofa cushions. George Hamilton is a happy surprise, spoofing himself in the bargain as the vain, mysterious studio executive with no specific duties or abilities except to dress up the set with his Malibu tan and inquire discreetly about discount liposuction. (There’s one on every picture, vaguely mumbling about “overages” and “demographics,” and it’s never clear what they are doing there.)
Hollywood Ending is a 40-carat cinematic jewel for anyone who has ever wondered about the insanity of a movie shot on location-and if you don’t recognize the inmates, then it’s obvious you’ve never visited one.
Dreck-Or Something Like It
The woefully derailed Life or Something Like It is not much of a movie. More of a train wreck-or something like it. Angelina Jolie may be many things, but a nice, upstanding career girl in sensible Laura Bush suits is not one of them. Playing a Seattle television reporter with tattoos discreetly concealed and a platinum wig, she looks like a trashy Mamie Van Doren-or is that an oxymoron? When a street prophet predicts she will die in one week, the self-involved material girl with a handsome baseball-star fiancé and a perfect job rethinks her values, repositions her priorities, turns a transit strike into a rock concert, falls in love with the cameraman she hates (Edward Burns, the poor man’s Ben Affleck) and finds redemption before her time runs out by rediscovering the joys of sex.
But wait. On the last Friday before her biological clock ticks its way to the Pearly Gates, she gets a network nod from a Good Morning America –style morning show and grabs the first plane for New York. “You’re still technically, legally and every other way alive,” says the script. “It’s still Thursday in Louisiana,” says the not-very- jolie Ms. Jolie.
The speeded-up motion of city traffic and a lot of lousy pop songs are just two of the conceits director Stephen ( The Mighty Ducks ) Herek leans on to fill in the dead spots in a one-note plot. The script, by John Scott Shepherd, a Kansas City ad exec who cut his teeth on McDonald’s commercials, is dead on arrival. The film is formulaic, delusional and about as accurate a depiction of life in television news (or something like it) as a Pillsbury bake-off. It’s only point is that for an ambitious blonde in the big city, the money, fame and success of network TV cannot compare with the love of a good man back home.
Trust me. Diane Sawyer did not start out this way.