No Full-Frontal Farrell-But Some Package!

First, A Home at the End of the World was infamous for Colin Farrell’s full-frontal nude scene. Then it was notoriously overpublicized for not showing Colin Farrell’s full-frontal nude scene. The bottle-raising, rabble-rousing, never-shaving Irish renegade who comes across as a New Age Robert Blake, addressing the issue on television, has been joking, “Without that scene, the movie is three inches shorter.” Hardly worth the fuss, I say. If all that’s missing is three inches, then the point is a flaccid one, if you know what I mean. Among the more idiotic reasons I have ever heard for re-editing a final print, one of the film’s producers told me the controversial scene was deleted after overstimulated teenage girls in preview audiences took one look at Mr. Farrell’s impressive endowments and began to scream and faint from excitement. Since A Home at the End of the World is a serious adult film about complex emotional values that is unlikely to be understood by teenagers in the first place, it all sounds like the work of overzealous publicists looking for new ways to stir up word of mouth for a movie that cannot be sold in the usual 20-second sound bites. Fortunately, it’s so tender and wrenching and beautifully made that it triumphs on its own merits. So don’t stay away for fear of missing out on something. This is show business; Mr. Farrell’s johnson will undoubtedly show up somewhere else.

Meanwhile, prepare yourself for an extraordinarily touching experience. Based on the 1990 novel by Michael ( The Hours ) Cunningham (who also did the screenplay) and marking the screen-directing debut of theater director Michael Mayer, A Home at the End of the World was filmed in 34 days and covers almost as many years in time. It’s a coming-of-age story about two childhood friends from the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, who forge a bond that surpasses the normal seasons of youth, responsibility, friendship, love and death. In the 1960′s, when he is only 9, Bobby Morrow has already been introduced to an unconventional lifestyle by an older brother who educates him in the ways of sex and drugs before committing suicide by throwing himself through a plate-glass window high on acid. Bobby is left with nobody to talk to, no family supervision, no rules and no sense of belonging to anyone or anything until, in high school, he meets and befriends Jonathan Glover, a new best pal with a cool mom (Sissy Spacek) and a stable family life. Johnny is too young to know what love is, but it’s clear that he is drawn instantly and deeply to Bobby’s reckless, impulsive spirit, while Bobby is attracted to Johnny’s sensitivity, insecurity and awkwardness, and especially to his mother Alice, who represents the kind of unity and unconditional compassion he never knew at home. Everyone falls for Bobby. He’s darkly handsome and worldly beyond his years, and he exudes the kind of loneliness that cries out for a hug. Before long, the boys have taught Alice to smoke joints and dig the soulful angst of their Laura Nyro records. Unfortunately, Alice also catches them making out together in Bobby’s Volkswagen. “I’m the adult here,” she says calmly, “and I don’t know what to say to either one of you.” So she does what she knows how to do best: She teaches Bobby how to make a perfect pie crust. When Johnny goes away to college, Bobby stays home with Alice as his surrogate mother.

By the 1980′s, Johnny’s parents have moved to Arizona because of his father’s health. Bobby has become a baker. With no roots and no future, and desperately missing his best friend, adopted brother and sensual soul mate, Bobby (who has grown into Colin Farrell) travels to New York and moves in with Johnny (stage actor Dallas Roberts, making his feature-film debut), who is now openly gay and living with an aging hippie named Clare (Robin Wright Penn). Clare has a special status in their unconventional world, because she was actually at Woodstock! So they construct their own unique nuclear family, as triangular as a piece of pie. Bobby, Johnny and Clare are all in love with each other. Bobby falls for Clare but still makes love to Johnny. Each angle contributes to the emotional geometry of the relationship. They buy a simple house in the country which they turn into the home they never had together, and open a restaurant where Bobby does the cooking. Meanwhile, Clare has a baby, and since neither of the guys knows which one is the father, they share the duties. Everything stops working if even one side of the triangle is missing. But Bobby’s eternal youth and optimism, the unspoken rage of Johnny’s hidden resentment, and Clare’s terrifying new feelings of jealousy signal storm clouds. Maybe they aren’t as unconventional as they thought they were. That’s all I will say about the plot. Finally, the rhythm of life forces Bobby to face the one thing he didn’t count on: People change, and nothing is forever. It’s life’s cruelest lesson, and Mr. Cunningham makes you care about these people as they learn it. The delicately balanced nuances of its narrative sophistication and its ironic grasp of moral and emotional passion left me shattered.

Richer and better constructed than The Hours , this is Michael Cunningham’s best writing. Lyrical, sweet-natured, touching, sexy and very funny, A Home at the End of the World is also beautifully served by an exemplary cast. The flamboyant Robin Wright Penn, with her flaming orange hair and her preposterous bad taste, is sublime as an over-the-hill flower child. Sissy Spacek’s private, rueful wisdom creates a portrait in pastel brushstrokes of dreamy maternal fortitude. Dallas Roberts brings just the right element of tortured dignity to the role of an all-American youth gone haywire. And Colin Farrell is a revelation. Without a trace of arrogance, he shows the beauty of an enviable boy who never learns how to look into a mirror and see what everyone else sees. The pain and confusion in his eyes as he desperately seeks the sanctuary of a home and hearth where he can find the peace he’s been missing his whole life requires more skill and craft than he has ever been compelled to display in his usual films that follow formulaic Hollywood clichés. He doesn’t just act out the words; he plays his feelings. Never mind that missing nude scene. This time, it’s great to watch him unzip a different talent, bigger and better than anything he’s hiding in his pants.

Bourne Loser

The Bourne Supremacy , a noisy sequel to The Bourne Identity , is another of those incoherent Robert Ludlum spy thrillers with more logistics than logic, and Matt Damon is back as the boyish secret agent with amnesia. Everyone thought he was dead, but in the two years since the first film faded out with a mushy love scene in a Greek taverna, he’s been hopscotching anonymously from continent to continent with a variety of passports, haunted by his mysterious past, tortured by nightmares and cuddled by his German girlfriend Marie (Franka Potente, from Run, Lola, Run ). The sequel begins when the lovebirds are rousted from their nest in Goa, India, and trapped underwater in a crash that kills Marie and sends Bourne on the lam again. Because secret agents keep dying around the globe, the C.I.A. thinks he’s the assassin. Joan Allen, wasted again in another grim role that doesn’t bother to stretch or challenge her talents, is the tough super-operative from C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va., dispatched to the front lines to smoke Bourne out of the shadows of political intrigue. Julia Stiles is back as the sympathetic field agent who was the last person to see Bourne alive. Brian Cox is the C.I.A. villain who masterminded the plot to frame him, for reasons previously unknown. Now we know: something to do with oil leases paid for with stolen C.I.A. money, and Bourne was the last person who knew. Kill him before he gets his memory back, and you rule the world!

Meanwhile, the underground spy still doesn’t know who he is, how he got there or where he was going in the first place, but for a blank who doesn’t even know his own ZIP code, Bourne still remembers everything about how to scale walls, escape armies of policemen through the subways and across the Berlin railroad tracks, crack all international security codes, speak numerous languages fluently, intercept secret cell-phone transmissions, load and fire state-of-the-art automatic weapons and dodge hundreds of cars going in the opposite direction in a chase through the traffic jams of Moscow driving a taxi. I mean, duh. Do you have any idea how long it takes to learn to use the pay phones in Russia? And he does it all looking like a member of the high-school wrestling team. Clearly a job for 007, not his grandson. But what do I know? It’s so brainless, expensive, pointless and absurd that it will probably break records.

Robots Rule

From the Isaac Asimov bookshelf of robot stories comes I, Robot , with Will Smith chasing killer robots in the cyberspace of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville . It plays dumb, but looks great. Could Chicago in 2035 have such socko visuals? Will Smith plays a depressed homicide detective with a grudge against the robots, which have become every household’s latest must-have consumer item. Wandering around his apartment naked and anguished in the opening scene, Mr. Smith reminded me of Mel Gibson in his Lethal Weapon hero-as-victim days, before he discovered a bigger martyr than himself from Galilee. But happily, he lacks the same sanctimonious solemnity that has turned Mr. Gibson into such a drag. He is dispatched to a conglomerate called U.S. Robotics, where the chief (James Cromwell) has been murdered by one of his own robots. This breaks the supreme law of these household can openers: Robots never kill humans. Attention must be paid! The machine with the loose lug nut must be found before America’s housewives get offed by their own vacuum cleaners! The plot mechanics are both silly (U.S. Robotics is obviously one of those multibillion-dollar conglomerates that can’t afford security, since Mr. Smith slips in with the ease of Siegfried and Roy) and ham-fistedly allegorical (the robots are Civil War space cadets, and the chief robot is Moses saving them from slavery).

But for all its flaws, I, Robot is arresting to look at. It’s shot almost entirely in chiaroscuro, shades of gleaming silver and ice blue, with splotches of fire-engine red burning where the robots’ hearts should be. The computer-generated creatures have the velocity of walking birds and human faces with sallow cheeks, high foreheads and weird melancholy expressions. The camera floats across the immaculate and expansive Chicago skyline where the U.S.R. building housing the robot factory has replaced the Sears Tower, and then winds its way beneath the elevated train tracks where the clanking Tinker Toys mingle with humans in busy pedestrian traffic. For sci-fi fans, I, Robot , directed by Alex Proyas, has its distractions, but as cheerful and sassy as Will Smith is, he is upstaged mercilessly by the robots. They can be menacing, innocent, scary, guileless, blank-faced and creepy, all at the same time–like a cabinet meeting in Crawford, Tex.