Annette as Bette: Steals the Stage

Beauty, talent and charisma are such rare commodities these days that we are lucky to find an actress with even one of them. In Being Julia, Annette Bening miraculously displays all three at the same time. Am I losing it, or is she a 21st-century movie miracle? Is this the good turtle soup, or merely the mock?

No matter. She turns this glistening, gold-leaf adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s novella Theatre into an effervescent personal triumph and provides an entertaining diversion for jaded audiences longing for a break from idiot comedies and wrist-slashing dramas of human suffering. There’ll be plenty of both between now and Christmas, so grab a chunk of pure pleasure while it lasts. In a kind of Merchant-Ivory version of All About Eve, Ms. Bening plays Julia Lambert, a temperamental stage legend in the 1930’s, married to a dashing producer (Jeremy Irons) who keeps her name in lights season after season. Approaching the mature years when she is becoming more reluctantly suited to Lady Macbeth than Desdemona, Julia finds both her star status in London’s West End and her marriage to Michael wafting into the yawn of a midlife crisis. This is not exactly an “open” marriage, but Julia has heard the rumors of Michael’s dalliances. Not ready to retire, yet mortified at the prospect of a future playing mothers in supporting roles, and saddened by the fact that the bloom is coming off the rose in every direction at once, Julia is frankly distraught.

So she does what Bette Davis would do: She throws a tantrum, moves her entourage to her country estate and takes a lover half her age—a pretty, attentive and rollickingly sexy American boy named Tom Fennell (Shaun Evans). Bewitched and bedded, Julia comes back to life with a rejuvenated vengeance, ravenously devouring each day (and her new swain) like she would a scone with jam. Everyone is skeptical, especially Julia’s cynical, been-around stage dresser and confidante (Juliet Stevenson) and her jealous, neglected lesbian patroness of long standing (Miriam Margolyes), who has been backing all of Michael’s projects and all of Julia’s starring vehicles for years. But Julia ignores every warning, gulping from the Fountain of Youth with gurgling choruses of girlish giggles. The milk sours when she finally realizes, heartbroken and devastated, that her brash young Yank is an opportunist who has been using Julia to launch his girlfriend’s career with the ingénue role in her new play. Worse, Michael has fallen for the little tart himself.

But there’s no gas pipe for Julia. She hasn’t clawed her way to the top for no reason, and now, like Crawford, Davis and Stanwyck, it’s her turn to toss away her Kleenex, fasten her seat belt and orchestrate her revenge. Saving her razor-sharp wits for opening night, Julia pulls out all the stops in the third act—a gem of sustained comedic timing in which she wipes the stage with the gold-digging ingénue (Lucy Punch) and the drunken second-rate playwright (Maury Chaykin), brings down the house, turns a dreary play into a smash hit, wins back the esteem and respect of her wayward husband, and resuscitates her career with a standing ovation. Like all great divas, “being Julia” means finding renewed self-confidence in the inspiration that comes with power.

Even in such formidable company as Rosemary Harris, Rita Tushingham, Maury Chaykin, Sheila McCarthy and Michael Gambon, Annette Bening makes Julia a multifaceted creature with a luxurious emotional range who must learn how to live offstage as well as on. Her laugh begins deep down around her waist and quivers ecstatically to the surface like champagne bubbles. She is luminous throughout. Jeremy Irons matches her every movement as the cuckolded husband who gets a taste of his own diffident medicine when Julia harvests her wild oats. I like the way the marvelous writer Ronald Harwood ( The Dresser) sets up their relationship in his smart, sophisticated screenplay. They give each other space and respect each other’s individuality, and in the end you realize they actually have a very deep bond that acts as adhesive. Even though their union is affectionate but sexless, they hold together when everyone else falls by the wayside, which allows for a satisfactory pattern of aberrant behavior followed by forgiveness.

Like Bette Davis and Gary Merrill in All About Eve, they give each other a run for their money, a mutual respect based on honesty and the room to make fools of themselves. If you cut your partners enough slack in the summer, they’ll always come home in the fall. The ingredients for a long-term relationship are beautifully chronicled by Hungarian director István Szabó against the opulent backdrop of period settings filmed in both London and Budapest. More closely associated with dark and brooding epics like Mephisto and Sunshine, director Szabó stages Being Julia for light, bright fun. Who knew the ghost of Ernst Lubitsch was lurking inside him, waiting to break free?

P.S., I Love You

More radiance glows warmly from the ethereal Laura Linney in P.S., indie-prod wunderkind Dylan Kidd’s eagerly anticipated follow-up to his 2002 art-house hit Roger Dodger. Shifting gears from the neurotic, staccato rhythm of that critical and film-festival-circuit big deal, Mr. Kidd goes tender and reflective with the quirky story of an older-woman/younger-man relationship fraught with passion and angst. I preferred the satirical urban bitterness of Roger Dodger to the limp, not always convincing romanticism of P.S., but there isn’t much else in life I prefer to Laura Linney. She plays Louise Harrington, a 39-year-old director of admissions at Columbia University’s School of Fine Arts—lonely, a failed artist who never realized her own dreams, divorced but still friendly with an ex-husband for whom she no longer feels any sexual attraction, a woman wondering “What did I do wrong?” and “Whatever happened to me?”

One day she receives an application from a student with the same name—F. Scott Feinstadt—as a high-school boyfriend she used to love. She has never recovered from his premature death 20 years ago, so when she comes across this student with the same name, telephone voice and handwriting, she comes unhinged. Has he returned from the dead? Could this be his son? They meet for an interview and the boy (Topher Grace) looks like him, too. Before you can register yourself for Ghostbusters 101, they are into the sheets so fast that Old Man Incredulity raises his ugly head—especially when the young man calls his mom after orgasm and reports, “It went well, I think—I was in and out.” Marcia Gay Harden makes a brief appearance as Louise’s best friend, who pops in from California and has a go at the young man herself. But mostly the Sturm und Drang centers on Louise’s midlife crisis, her frustrated, lovelorn misery and the way she forces herself to re-evaluate her own romantic priorities in time for a happy ending.

The cast, which includes Gabriel Byrne, Paul Rudd and Lois Smith, is stellar, and Ms. Linney is a great deal more: The shifting emotions cloud her face like a change in the weather. While the mysticism that forges this couple’s mutual attraction is abandoned, the intensity of their passion and the impractical collision of their age differences leave them exhausted. The director forfeits the catalytic-converter style of his earlier work, favoring conventional camerawork that is more self-consciously static than emotionally involving. For some odd reason, Mr. Kidd has also adopted an annoying habit of filming everything in close-ups, framing the actors’ reactions without ever showing what they’re reacting to. Too many questions go unanswered in P.S., too many issues left unexplored. But Laura Linney’s rueful awakening from middle-aged slumber and Topher Grace’s balancing act between boyish lust and grownup integrity are irresistible.

Men on the Verge

The best movie I have seen lately is Sideways, a wise, soulful, honest, appealing, sometimes hilarious, often touching, relentlessly human and always entertaining movie about two middle-aged dorks on a road trip through the California wine country. Directed and co-written (with Jim Taylor) by the gifted, self-assured Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt), it has the same vibrant intelligence and keen observation of human foibles as those previous films, along with a lot of substantial emotional poignancy. Like Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, Miles (limburger-faced Paul Giamatti) and his best pal Jack (Thomas Haden Church) are lonely, low-key losers who head north from L.A. in search of macho reasons for the cruelest kicks in the groin of life. Miles is a balding, divorced eighth-grade schoolteacher with no sex appeal and a boring fascination with wine-tasting. He is seriously depressed. Jack is a fading actor, best known for a Spray & Wash commercial, whose once-ardent reputation as a ladies’ man is fading as fast as his career prospects.

A week before Jack’s wedding, the guys decide to celebrate his last week of freedom. While they argue and try to get laid, we get a tour of the vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored, and learn a lot about cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays. We also get to hang with two foxy chicks—a wine merchant named Stephanie (Sandra Oh) and a waitress named Maya (Virginia Madsen). Clocking in equally glorious episodes of sadness, sexual ecstasy, violence, absurdity and wrenching pathos, Mr. Payne teaches the audience a lot about love, pain, humiliation, the thwarted dreams of men and pinot noir. It may be a guy thing, but I think this blissful meditation on masculinity and loneliness will capture the hearts of everyone with a pulse, male or female. So many movies are made about women in crisis; this time every aspect of what it feels like to be a man rapidly heading over the hill is gleefully illustrated. Nothing is what it seems.

As Miles’ depression grows, so does Jack’s sexual frenzy. “Don’t drink too much,” says Jack. “I don’t want you passing out and going to the dark side.” But as they test the limits of male bonding beyond all limits, it’s the happy-go-lucky Jack whose premarital one-night stands force him to take stock of his wasted life, while the miserable Miles gets a second chance he never thought possible. This is a bachelor’s last hurrah, a “week to get crazy,” but nothing turns out the way you expect from conventional movies. Their odyssey beyond the wilds of Santa Barbara encompasses many adventures, including a short birthday visit to Miles’ zany mother and Jack’s riotous encounter with an oversexed wife whose husband’s unexpected arrival forces him to hobble all the way back to the motel butt-naked. Both of these guys are jerks, but Sideways is so sensibly and carefully written—and the acting so superb and natural—that you end up cheering them on to a brand-new set of “wake up before it’s too late” revelations. Sideways is difficult to assess, and it eludes description. Its strengths lie in creating wonderful characters who are offbeat and not always likable, but whose borderline insanities are desperate attempts to prove that human failures can still master something in life. Sideways is long and too languidly paced, but I’m not complaining. It crams a lot of rich and rapturous feelings into its two-hours-plus, and I was never bored. It is rare to experience a film, both wildly funny and surprisingly edgy, about awkward, embarrassed, crippled, confused and needy nerds trying to make a promising future out of a defective past. As Sideways marches straight ahead with critics and audiences alike, expect fireworks when the awards season approaches.