Not much to give thanks for this Thanksgiving, but it’s a good time to play catch-up. Whatever you do this holiday season, if anyone recommends a dirge called The Fountain, take them off your Christmas list. I don’t care what a movie is about, but I have one rule that never changes: It has to make sense. This hopeless head trip by Darren Aronofsky, the loopy maverick who explored the glamour and squalor of drug addicts in the miserable, depressing flop Requiem for a Dream, doesn’t make one lick of sense, and it doesn’t seem to be about much of anything at all.
It does, however, continue to raise serious questions about who advises Hugh Jackman on his film career. How can the most charming, talented and versatile new star in show business pick so many rotten movie roles? As fabulous as he was on Broadway, singing and dancing and soaring his way to a Tony Award in The Boy From Oz, and as appealing as he was in Woody Allen’s marvelous Scoop, I could barely sit through Kate and Leopold, Someone Like You, Van Helsing, Swordfish, The Prestige or the three brain-dead X-Men travesties. I know that he makes enough money from this junk to afford himself the luxury of returning to the stage, but in my opinion, he should come back soon while the welcome mat still welcomes. Bad movies blow ill winds. In The Fountain, they reach gale force.
This demented alternative-reality doodle knits an epic love story through three historical eras. In the 1500’s, Mr. Jackman plays a Spanish conquistador named Tomas who is sent by Queen Isabella (played in torturous headdresses by Rachel Weisz, who in real life is Mrs. Darren Aronofsky) to the jungles of South America to find the mythical Fountain of Youth. What the loyal, romantic soldier finds is a tree from the Garden of Eden, hidden in a Mayan pyramid in Guatemala. Eating the bark from this tree of life, he manages to survive the Inquisition. (“Whoever drinks its sap will live forever” goes the legend.) Five hundred years later, Mr. Jackman plays Tommy, a cancer-research scientist who is trying to cure his wife Izzi (short for Isabel, get it?) from a brain tumor. By golly, there’s some of that sap left in the lab, but his boss (the amazingly youthful Ellen Burstyn, looking like she’s been drinking it all along) won’t let him have any. Cut to 2500, where Mr. Jackman is now Tom, a bald 26th-century astronaut in prison-stripe pajamas who looks like an Auschwitz inmate and spends a lot of time on a distant planet called Xibalba in the lotus position. By this time, he has his own tree of life, which floats to the planet Earth from a dying star in Billie Burke’s bubble from The Wizard of Oz.
Despite lots of dumb dialogue about parallel domains and toxicity reports, the movie covers a millennium, and despite its 96-minute running time, it seems to take a millennium to get through it. At a time when more people than ever have become obsessed with the desire to stay young, defy the aging process and prolong life, a movie about living forever really ought to have more impact that this irritating muddle. Apparently, the idea for The Fountain began in 1999 as a rough sketch on a restaurant napkin and progressed no further than the restaurant garbage disposal. What’s left is a spiritually confused jumble of pop-Buddhist philosophy and hysterical symbolic visuals, without a shred of originality. (The ridiculous ending seems “inspired” by Stanley Kubrick’s overrated 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it’s twice as pretentious.) As a filmmaker, Mr. Aronofsky has an overwrought imagination, so you might find some of the set pieces arresting, but the three acts that challenge time and space eventually suffocate the dramatic content; Hugh Jackman as the three time travelers just looks three times more uncomfortable than he does playing werewolves and vampire hunters; and the trio of stories bounces in and out of sequence like drunks playing hopscotch. The lasting effect is of being smashed in the head by falling bricks. When The Fountain premiered at the Venice Film Festival, it was loudly and rudely booed. When it moved to the Toronto International Film Festival in September, the press notes promised that the film’s “desire—and ability—to grapple with the larger questions of life, art and the universe results in work that is always challenging and provocative.” The only challenge here is how to keep the audience from snoring, and the only provocative issue raised by The Fountain is how it ever got financed in the first place.
James Bond is back, and Casino Royale may signify the rebirth of a franchise that everyone eulogized in the last, dismal chapter, Die Another Day. Now in its 21st “reboot,” something new has been added to spice up the traditional 007 martini. The diehards who always name Sean Connery as the real, best, and one and only James Bond are being forced to think again. Daniel Craig, the sixth 007, has blond preppie hair, blue eyes, six-pack abs and a youthful pit-bull instinct that none of the other Bonds had. He is sexier and younger than Connery, funnier than Roger Moore and more of a ruthless womanizer than Pierce Brosnan. He also looks better in the kind of Speedo none of them would have dared to wear, and seems confident of blowing up the world and getting out without an Aston Martin. In fact, before Judi Dench drafts him against her better judgment as 007, he drives a Ford. This 007 also cries, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he eats quiche.
The titles are a mass of roulette wheels and playing cards, but there isn’t a Bond girl in them, and in his search for Le Chiffre, the arch fiend who finances the world’s most lethal terrorist cell and weeps blood from his eye sockets, Bond doesn’t even bail out of a helicopter. In fact, he arrives in a bulldozer and does more body-punishing acrobatics than any of his suaver, older predecessors by chasing a gang of villains across a construction site in Madagascar like a Mexican jumping bean. The curvaceous sexpot from the British Treasury who breaks his heart (French actress Eva Green) doesn’t show up until 007 tries to win back some of the money that he’s cost Her Majesty’s government by joining a $150 million poker game at the Casino Royale in Montenegro. The sex scenes and the verbal sparring matches that follow add up to the most erotic Bond film in years. Daniel Craig gets ample opportunity to show off his already-proven acting prowess as well as his bared muscles, especially in a brutal nude torture scene that involves quite a thrashing in places where the sun don’t shine. The monstrous Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) moves the ouch factor up so many notches that a lot of macho guys, for obvious reasons, will only be able to watch this sadism with their legs crossed.
The locations are glamorous and the sets are lavish, but not laughably so; the violence is wincingly real; and the only gadget is a defibrillator in Bond’s car. Both the jokes and the thrills move at a satisfactory pace that allows you to catch your breath between heroics and orgasms, thanks to three screenwriters (including Paul Haggis, of Crash). The movie is a bit too long for my taste, and the women look anorexic. I also wonder if modern terrorists still do business with valises full of money, like the one that shows up on a canal in Venice. Still, Casino Royale has a freshness that’s been missing from the Bond films for years, and the new 007 is incredibly impressive. Daniel Craig has nerves of steel and balls of brass, but if he’s doing his own stunts, then in 10 years he’s going to need knee surgery and a hip replacement.
Actress Joey Lauren Adams, best known for her excellent work in Chasing Amy, makes a formidable directing debut with Come Early Morning, a modest but honest-as-grits film about loneliness in a small Southern town that plays like a Carson McCullers short story. Ashley Judd gives another realistic performance as Lucy, a tough Arkansas cookie who lays floors, drives a pickup truck the color of key lime pie and not only can’t commit to a man, but can’t even remember the last time she kissed somebody while sober. Looking for directions on a dead-end road, she looks for affection from her father (Scott Wilson), a disillusioned guitar player who has lost his ability to communicate with everyone except God, and from a handsome cowboy named Cal (charismatic Jeffrey Donovan), who works as a roofing contractor and does everything to win Lucy’s trust. By the time she gives in, he’s moved on to another girl. Nothing happens, but as a tone poem about little people living small lives, the film has a bittersweet taste that lingers like the finish of a moody, first-rate novel. Sound direction by Ms. Adams and marvelous performances by a reliable cast that includes Stacy Keach, Tim Blake Nelson and the great Diane Ladd open a new window onto the world of holy rollers, greasy diners and one-night stands in seedy motels. A small movie, with big rewards, that is definitely worth a look.
We always need comedy, and the wacky satirical parries from Christopher Guest and his band of merry lunatics are often a cause for euphoria. His barbed pen and razor wit have drawn a pound of fresh flesh from such subjects as heavy metal, small-town amateur theater, dog shows and the passé folk-song craze. It seems a natural that he should get around to the pathetic hype and marketing vulgarity of Hollywood in the annual grip of Oscar fever. There’s only one thing wrong: For Your Consideration isn’t funny. It’s his weakest and dullest film yet, despite the efforts of his usual repertory-company regulars.
Best of the bunch is Catherine O’Hara as an aging star who has toiled as a second banana in B movies for 30 years but only got rave reviews one time, for playing a blind prostitute. Her latest gig is playing the role of a dying matriarch—an uneasy cross between Amanda Wingfield and Molly Goldberg—in a corny Southern Gothic Jewish melodrama called Home for Purim, replete with magnolias and matzo balls. One day, she gets wind of an Internet rumor that her performance could land her an Academy Award nomination. Before you can say “And the winner is … ,” Oscar fever is spreading, and her two moronic co-stars, Victor (Harry Shearer), best known for his kosher commercials as the Foot-Long Wiener, and Callie (Parker Posey), a no-talent standup comic, get bitten, too. The film-within-the-film includes co-writer Eugene Levy as a scheming, motor-mouth agent, Fred Willard and Jane Lynch as trashy Hollywood gossip-show hosts, Bob Balaban and Michael McKean as the film’s mismatched goofball authors, John Michael Higgins as a mentally unbalanced press agent, Jennifer Coolidge as an irrepressible diaper-cleaning-company heiress turned movie producer, Sandra Oh as a poster designer, Ed Begley Jr. as a makeup man, and Mr. Guest himself, in garish shorts and a towering Don King hairdo, as the tempestuous director whose major contribution is: “Next shot, a close-up of the kugel.” Nothing they do earns more than a random chuckle, and the movie has no payoff, even after studio moguls force them to change the title to a more generic Home for Thanksgiving. About time, too. Whoever heard of a turkey stuffed with gefilte fish?
It’s a smart idea, ripe with possibilities that never see daylight. It all falls apart fast, because any attempt to poke fun at Hollywood has been done before, the foolishness of the film industry is self-evident, and everything spoofed in For Your Consideration as asinine is taken for granted as a realistic ritual in awards season. Mr. Guest and Co. have forgotten one of the basic rules of comedy: You cannot satirize a thing that is, by its own existence, a satire of itself already.