Mistaken Identity

Astoundingly, Matt Damon finds the time to write, produce, raise money to develop new screenplays by fledgling directors, and party hearty with an army of nubile flavors-of-the-month in the gossip columns. Occasionally, to pay the bills, he also acts. Sometimes, when the bills have to be paid fast, he acts in brainless junk like The Bourne Identity . Even if the hand doesn’t fit the glove, he’s in there pitching. It’s the size of the role that keeps the fans happy, and it’s the money, pal, that satisfies the I.R.S.

The Bourne Identity is based on one of those Robert Ludlum spy thrillers that don’t make much sense but keep weary riders occupied on planes and subways. It was already made as an unceremoniously forgettable TV movie with Richard Chamberlain, but that didn’t stop low-budget director Doug ( Swingers , Go ) Liman from tackling it all over again for his first expensive studio film with a bankable star and special effects. Who remembers what they saw on TV in 1988? I’ve already forgotten the new version, and I saw it last week.

Sixty miles south of Marseille, a fishing boat rescues a man found floating in the Mediterranean with two bullet holes in his back and the number of a bank box in Switzerland implanted in his hip. He doesn’t know who he is, how he got there, or where he was going in the first place. In the Swiss deposit box, he finds money, six passports with different aliases, a gun and an address in Paris of somebody named Jason Bourne. The film cuts back and forth between the cops and the C.I.A. agents who are tracking him down-a ploy that lengthens the running time, but wrecks the suspense. The audience knows he’s Jason Bourne before he does. But why was Jason Bourne attacked by assailants before he could get out of the American Embassy in Zurich? Why is he the focus of a full-scale police manhunt from Rome to Rio? And why does the C.I.A. want him in a body bag before sundown? One of his aliases is already in the morgue, but if Jason Bourne is still alive, just who is lying on the slab in cold storage? O.K., so he goes underground, paying a German girl (Franka Potente, from Run Lola Run ) $20,000 to drive him to Paris, where the two find hanky-panky and hired killers before they can get into the shower in the film’s only (and discreetly shot) sex scene. O.K., so he’s a C.I.A. operative (the youngest secret agent in history, from the look of things) assigned to assassinate an African big shot. He was injured while botching the job, and now the agency wants him dead to cover its own mistakes.

The movie is supposed to keep you riveted while it keeps you guessing, but with more logistics than logic, it just keeps you yawning while you wait for the next gun blast. You don’t have to wait long: The assaults come fast and furious, accompanied by a soundtrack that makes the crack of every knuckle sound like a nuclear explosion. Sillier still, for a man with amnesia, Bourne remembers everything about how to scale walls like Spider-Man, speak numerous languages, blow up buildings, intercept police radio transmissions, load and fire state-of-the-art automatic weapons, and dodge hundreds of cars going in the wrong direction in a chase through the rainy streets of Paris. Why can’t he remember his own phone number? Clearly, this is a job for James Bond, not his grandson.

Matt Damon is not ideally suited for this kind of cloak-and-dagger espionage stuff. Too young and boyish to play 007, he works hard to act cool and tough, surviving every scene of murder and mayhem with a Band-Aid and a preppie haircut. But how much acting can you do when you look like a high-school sophomore imitating The X-Files ? He’s not alone. An excellent supporting cast, including Brian Cox, Julia Stiles, Chris Cooper and Clive Owen, are all seriously wasted as assorted spies and counterspies. I expected more from director Liman. Opting for a more visceral style than his earlier films only vitiates what few insights he might have about the overworked genre of spy thrillers in general. The high-adrenaline, souped-up visuals ensure a lack of moral perspective. And the cloying romantic ending in a Greek taverna -tacked on carelessly to satisfy Hollywood’s insistence on providing Matt Damon fans with a happy kiss-off before the final fade-fails to salvage a film that is at best misguided, at worst stubbornly flashy, garbled and ready to file in the drawer labeled “instantly forgettable.”

Doing the Vatican Rag

Considering the current stench of moral outrage permeating the air around the Catholic Church, a mischievous little soufflé called The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys smells like a fragrant new rose from the Jackson & Perkins catalog. This innocent, uneven rites-of-passage trifle delivers fewer shocks than its title implies. The only offense that might provoke another sleepless night in Vatican City is the cruel way it ridicules a thorny, one-legged nun named Sister Assumpta, played with pickled sterility by Jodie Foster, who takes umbrage but no prisoners. (Ms. Foster also produced the film.)

A big hit at Sundance, Altar Boys is a memory piece about brats growing up Catholic in the 1970′s. The two protagonists are a randy pair of pimple-faced, sex-crazed adolescents in hormonal confusion, Francis (Emile Hirsch, a pint-sized regular on ER ) and Tim (Kieran Culkin, Macaulay’s kid brother). More interested in comic books than catechism, these precocious prisoners at hard labor in a Catholic school live in a world of atomic-fueled action adventure where everyone is divided into heroes and villains. Tired of simple pranks like leveling telephone poles with a chainsaw, they channel their creative fantasies into writing and illustrating their own blasphemous comic book-much to the horror of the stern, repressed Sister Assumpta, who finds herself the model for the peg-leg cycle-slut villainess, Nunzilla.

The film turns dark when reality shifts to the real problems at home. To escape a miserable home life with warring parents, Francis develops a strong bond with a sensitive girl named Margie (Jena Malone), a suicidal classmate with a background of psychologically damaging incest. Tim becomes obsessive and jealous, devising more outrageous jokes that grow increasingly dangerous and eventually lead to real tragedy, both in animated fantasy and in life. Stealing a cougar from a game preserve after tranquilizing the animal with NyQuil and angel dust is the final escapade that changes their lives forever.

The animation sequences interspersed with the live action are colorful and imaginative, but director Peter Care’s lack of self-assurance in his awkward handling of death, drug abuse and incest is uncomfortable. One minute you laugh, the next minute you squirm. Nervous Catholics can rest easy: Despite the fun it pokes at nuns and priests, Altar Boys is not edgy enough to have a political agenda. It’s not serious enough to be profound, and not ribald enough to be giddy. It just sits there undecided, pleasant and harmless, as contrived and uninviting to a demanding filmgoer as communion grape juice must be to a reluctant atheist.

Star Power Lights Up Our Town

They used to call it summer stock, but when Paul Newman takes the stage at the Westport Country Playhouse, it’s more like Broadway with barn doors. Joanne Woodward, the new artistic director of one of the oldest summer theaters on the East Coast, is turning Westport into a summer event. Who else could get her husband back on the stage? Rolling up his sleeves, adjusting the spectacles on his nose, and diving into the role of the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play Our Town (through June 22), the Hollywood legend has kicked off the summer season with the kind of audience genuflecting usually reserved for visiting royalty. Every high school in America does Our Town , but if you’re lucky enough to find a ticket, this one is worth a trip to Connecticut.

For a play written in 1938, this chronicle of life, love and death in the town of Grover’s Corners, N.H. (pop. 2,642) remains a tonic and reassuring avowal of the nobility that lies in the hearts of just plain folks. You hear the whistle signaling the commuter train from Boston, and you see George Gibbs fall in love with his next-door neighbor, Emily Webb, across the backyard fence, but in the stylized minimalism of the production, you have to use your imagination to smell the sunflowers or feel the cold from the cemetery on the hill where their journey takes them. It’s up to Mr. Newman to provide the facts, tapping his cane for emphasis, as he introduces us to the Bible-reading, mill-working, dish-washing, lawn-mowing, child-raising, teetotaling citizens who lived and died 100 years before computers, space ships and political correctness. You feel the genealogy, the mortality and the evolution of small-town life from 1901 to 1913 in James Naughton’s direction, and you also get a renewed sense of the skills that made Thornton Wilder a writer ahead of his time, riskily playing around with form and structure, cutting back and forth in time like the movies.

The distinguished cast includes Frank Converse and Jayne Atkinson as Doc Gibbs and his wife, Jeffrey DeMunn as the editor of the town newspaper and Jane Curtin as his no-nonsense wife, Stephen Spinella as the church organist and town drunk, and Ben Fox and the luminous Maggie Lacey as the young lovers, George and Emily. They all make a masterwork that looks deceptively simple seem doubly powerful because of their own simplicity and emotional directness.

Threading the pieces together with twinkling wisdom, Mr. Newman has a wonderful way of using his Method training to break up the Stage Manager’s sometimes mannered expository sentences, making his folksy observations sound like natural progressions of thought instead of monologues. He’s the major key to the rich and ennobling philosophy that leaves the theatergoer with the passionate desire to enjoy the fullness of life even in the jaded world of today. Mr. Newman may be a 77-year-old grandfather with silver hair, but he still has the honest, truthful and unpredictable allure of Chance, Brick, Hud and Cool Hand Luke to me. He takes an old warhorse like Our Town and turns it into Newman’s Own.