Pretty Stars, In a Pretty Familiar Story

Every week the marquees change, and the choking surfeit

of trash we are boggled in gets replaced by … more trash! One look at the movie

ads clogging your newspaper can make you wonder if your brain is coming

derailed from your body. The Whole Ten

Yards , Johnson Family Vacation , Hellboy , Starsky and Hutch , 13 Going

On 30 , Mean Girls , and various

and sundry Kill Bill s and knockoffs

thereof-the list gets longer every time I turn the page. Who cares about The Alamo , that interminable bore that

makes Billy Bob Thornton, Dennis Quaid and Jason Patric look like the faces on

a box of Smith Brothers cough drops? I’m sure I’ve seen movies I have hated as

much as Dogville , Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

and About Adam , but I just can’t

remember what they are. Sadder still, what does it say about the state of

so-called criticism today when these movies nobody wants to see blast forth ads

full of thumbs-up-“way up”? What does it say about the public when the more

money dogs like Scooby-Doo 2 drag in

at the box office, the worse they seem to be? And the summer, when they save

the worst movies for the brain-dead, hasn’t even started. I should have

listened to my mother and opened a revival house. Then I could at least go

broke in style, knowing I pleased one person-myself.

And so it is with some relief when a movie comes along

like Laws of Attraction , a slick,

lushly appointed romantic comedy which will not appeal to tattooed freaks,

violence-craving kids, prison inmates or critics desperately trying to prove

how young and hip they are, but which does provide an element of the one word

that has disappeared from the world of movies. Remember the word

“entertainment”? It went the way of Vincente Minnelli. So is Laws of Attraction a great comedy? Get

real. What was the last great comedy you saw, or the last great anything? No,

in essence, Laws of Attraction is

about only two things: (1) how pretty Julianne Moore is, and (2) how pretty

Pierce Brosnan is. O.K., it’s not Billy Wilder. But compared to all of the

films I’ve suffered through lately about killing and war and dope fiends and

pedophiles and suicide, I’ll take pretty. Pretty is good.

The two stars are battling New York divorce lawyers who

fall in love hating each other. We just saw the same plot with George Clooney

and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the godawful Coen Brothers fiasco Intolerable Cruelty , but so what?

Everything is a copy of something else these days; inspired originality is as

hard to come by as one of Mr. Brosnan’s 007 Maseratis at a half-price sale. And

even with its plodding tempo and dull padding, Laws of Attraction is a better, edgier movie. The adversarial

Moore-Brosnan duo is rich, beautiful and successful, but they never go

anywhere. They do not date, or end up on Page Six. They don’t seem to have any

friends or lovers or get any bang for their bucks. What is wrong with this

picture? She is Audrey Miller, a crack attorney who is not beyond framing the

husbands of her female clients to get them better settlements. Now she’s up to

her Palm Pilot fighting off the toughest opponent she’s ever faced in a

courtroom. He is Daniel Rafferty, new in town, smart, ruthless, a GQ cover who has never lost a case. From

their opening arguments on, it’s open war in the divorce-court trenches, using

every strategy from apology to insult as they thrust and parry their way

through New York, drinking lethal Mexican cocktails, landing in bed in a moment

of horny weakness with him showing up in court dangling her panties. Two pit

bulls whose battles in one divorce trial after another become fodder for the

tabloid-news channels. Ridiculous, of course, but it’s the same stuff they

print every day in the New York Post .

Things boil over with the latest boldface divorce war between two instant

celebs, a fried-brains-a-flaky designer named Serena (Parker Posey) and her

rock-star husband, Thorne (Michael Sheen), the lead singer for a group called

the Needles. Each of them is fighting over a castle in Ireland, so it’s off to

the land of leprechauns to depose the household staff. Among the fiddles, clog

dances and shamrocks, the movie takes a detour, and the two very charming stars

get a chance to display how much charm they really have, getting married in a

drunken Guinness stout stupor. Back in Manhattan, when he wins the divorce case

because of a piece of evidence he finds accidentally in her garbage bin, it’s

time for them to hit the judge’s chambers for their own divorce. By this time,

the movie has collapsed along with every attempt at artificial respiration-but

they’re so pretty to look at, and this movie isn’t over yet. If you haven’t

dozed off, there are more surprises on the way.

The eternally debonair Brosnan, who is more underrated

than he should be, mixes some of his celebrated sardonic James Bond wit with

the sensitivity he showed in the marvelous film Evelyn . The delectable Ms. Moore is clearly having a rest from her

usual tense and demanding assignments. Famous for roles that are usually one

step away from depression, danger and death, they both look like they are

having a swell time playing a sexy, relaxed, contemporary and self-confident

rivalry in the Tracy and Hepburn mold. And there is a crisp, appealing and

hilarious contribution by Frances Fisher, who plays Ms. Moore’s rich, vain

mother. This ageless logarithm with the face lifts and the Eve Arden wisecracks

is, in real life, almost the same age as Julianne Moore. When Mr. Brosnan meets

her for the first time, he asks, “Are you really 56?” She purrs girlishly,

“Parts of me are.” She’s got all the best lines-or maybe it’s just that they’re

the only lines in the picture that don’t sound like they’ve been rewritten a

dozen times. Depending on which credits you read, several screenwriters have

been listed. Sometimes two and sometimes three-Aline Brosh McKenna, Karey

Kilpatrick and Robert Harling-are credited, which is never a good sign. The

dialogue is so muddled it’s hard to know who wrote what, but Mr. Harling ( Steel Magnolias , The First Wives Club ) has such a talent for clever zingers you can

almost place bets on which lines are his. The movie’s weak stab at making some

kind of statement on the divorce issue doesn’t ring true at all, and although

the British director, Peter Howitt, proved with the Gwyneth Paltrow film Sliding Doors that he can juggle styles

and tempos without confusing excess, he doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with

American comedy. Thank you, Jesus, for the two stars. It’s their movie all the

way, and Mr. Howitt has the wisdom to just get out of the way and let them go

at each other like chinchillas in heat. I liked Laws of Attraction , but it doesn’t really add up to much more than

a fun date flick-for folks who are still dating after 50.

Douse That Fire

For relentless, mean-spirited, stomach-heaving violence,

look no further than a depressing horror called Man On Fire . Everything is incoherent about this mess, from the

unbelievable plot to the mixed-up geography. It starts in El Paso, then moves

across the Mexican border to Juarez, although the locations look like Mexico

City. Occasionally one of the many cars loaded with killers and kidnappers will

pass the famous scenic volcano Popocatepetl, near Cuernavaca. Suffice it to say

nothing about this pumped-up, hyperthyroidal Tony Scott revenge flick makes

sense, but it takes two hours to kill off as many people and demolish as many

vehicles as Charles Bronson used to do in 30 minutes. Denzel Washington plays

Creasy, a scruffy, drunken tough guy who has seen better days fighting

terrorists. Desperate for money to feed his Jack Daniels habit, he cleans up

and go to work as a bodyguard for a Mexican millionaire with a pretty blond

wife (Radha Mitchell) and a cute, blond and thoroughly precocious little

daughter (played by cute, blond and thoroughly precocious child star Dakota

Fanning). She adores the big, black former counterterrorist who specializes in

bone-crunching violence in two languages, with subtitles. To him, it’s a job.

He’s paid to protect the kid, not be her pal or playmate. Overwritten by Brian

Helgeland, who seems to be writing half of the brainless blockbusters coming

out of Hollywood these days, the film tries to delve beneath the hard exterior

of this killing machine. He’s sullen, depressed and guilty about his past (“Do

you think God will ever forgive us?” he asks his retired buddy, Christopher

Walken, who is totally wasted in the movie but at least doesn’t play the

villain for a change). The movie never explains what it is that Creasy is

guilty about. He once tried to commit suicide, but the gun jammed. He considers

that his lucky bullet. You flunk Formula Film Class 101 if you don’t know (1)

that cute little moppet will be kidnapped, (2) that lucky bullet will find a

purpose in a crucial moment in the screenplay, and (3) Creasy will find his own

humanity and heart. She buys him a medal of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost

causes. He teaches her to swim. But first there are about 2,000 Mexicans to

kill. The little girl disappears, Denzel is riddled with enough burning iron to

incinerate a mere mortal, and instead of heading for San Diego or Pizmo Beach, he

takes on the case all by himself, dispensing advice to the rats and hoods of

the barrio like: “Revenge is a meal best served cold.” Man On Fire piles on every blood-splattering Latino cliché from

Anthony Mann’s Border Incident to

Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic , with

tortures even the Punisher never thought about. I can’t tell you how dismaying

it is to watch a great actor like Denzel Washington ripping off one man’s

fingers and ears, one by one, with a carving knife, then sealing the bloody

stumps with a hot cigarette lighter. The audience screams for more. So he

inserts a remote-control time bomb into another victim’s alimentary canal and

pushes the death button. I am amazed the Mexican government hasn’t found a way

to seek revenge against Tony Scott for the damage he has done to the Mexican

tourist industry. No wonder the movie is so addled about where it takes place.

By the time Denzel takes on the entire country, blowing up everything in sight,

the movie’s opening crawl (“There’s a new kidnapping every 60 minutes, and 70%

of the victims never survive”) has become a reality illustrated with arty

camera angles, pretentious jump cuts, noisy explosions, fast-forward speed

projection, and all manner of annoying and distracting camera tricks that make

the movie impossible to follow-and who cares, anyway? Man On Fire turns one of the most beautiful countries in the world

into a hopeless dump of rotting immorality and crime where nobody is safe.

According to this cynical movie, the government officials, the businessmen, the

peasants, the children, even the cops are corrupt and dangerous, and there is

no authority figure in the entire country trustworthy enough to turn to for

help. It’s up to a man like Denzel/Creasy to smash skulls together, even if it

costs him his own life. Preparing for the throw-up violence in the final reel,

Christopher Walken surveys the corpses and says, “Creasy’s art is death-he’s

about to paint his masterpiece.” In today’s cinematic pathology, garbage comes

in many forms. In the long, incomprehensible and preposterous Man On Fire , you get all of them in the

same movie.