The Man in the Iron Mask: All for Nothing … Why They Call It Hush

The current crop of movies invading a screen near you falls into two categories: don’t miss (the exquisite Mrs. Dalloway, the quirky Love and Death on Long Island, and the dark and haunting Paul Newman film noir Twilight ) and don’t bother. To the second list, add two new entries. Romance may not be dead, but it will bore you to death in The Man in the Iron Mask, a cluttered and tedious yawn that once again drags those brawling, plumed Three Musketeers off the library shelf to give their “all for one and one for all” in time to save the starving people of Paris from the villainy of Louis XIV. When the 1939 film version of the Alexandre Dumas costume epic opened, one critic wrote “Dumas is not an author any scriptwriter or director should take too literally. He is a good storyteller, but a bit of a windbag.” It’s a warning that has gone ignored by writer-director Randall ( Braveheart ) Wallace, who has matched the clanking old book in all of its length but only half of its impact.

Leonardo DiCaprio. Jeremy Irons. John Malkovich. Gérard Depardieu. Gabriel Byrne. Whether they deserve their inflated salaries or not is a subject open to debate, but any way you add it up, that’s a lot of spinach just to prove how ludicrously silly they all look in tights. Cut to the bone, this lumbering epic tells the tale of twin heirs to the throne, one good and one evil. The wicked twin is Louis XIV, the good twin is his innocent brother Philippe, who has secretly been locked away for six years in a filthy dungeon, his boyish face painfully encased in an iron mask. The mission to rescue Philippe and restore his birthright is clearly a task for the Musketeers, who come out of retirement with swords drawn and horses saddled to save their country from tyranny and ruin. In the process, they lose the lifelong friendship of their friend and former captain, the noble D’Artagnan. They all seem to have the gout, and the amount of time it takes for the fencing to begin seems longer than the French Revolution. Despite such distractions as rutting in the hayloft with the milkmaids and hiding behind masks at a lavish masquerade ball, by the time the Musketeers rush to the rescue of the plot, the movie has already been chloroformed into a state of narcolepsy.

Last year at the Cannes Film Festival, Leonardo DiCaprio and John Malkovich were often spotted wandering aimlessly through the lobby of the Majestic Hotel, looking bored and miserable. Now I know why. They were shooting The Man in the Iron Mask in the hills nearby, and the action in Cannes must have been a tempting escape from a location shoot that wasn’t exactly scintillating. The same looks of baffled concern and terminal angst mark their performances on the screen. In a disastrous follow-up to Titanic , Mr. DiCaprio plays both the arrogant, cruel and merciless Louis and his gentle, baby-faced brother Philippe, with such a wimpy lack of style that there is virtually no distinction between the two. Prissy-mouthed and lost, he says “I wear the mask, it does not wear me !” and the laughs that follow the line are guaranteed to wake the audience from a sound slumber. Weighted down in velvet waistcoats and purple ostrich feathers, he looks like a 14-year-old girl playing a pirate princess in a bad school play. Not much hot adolescent passion stirred up here.

Equally ludicrous, the Musketeers all seem like Mouseketeers. Mr. Irons, as Aramis, takes the whole thing as seriously as if he were tackling Macbeth, Mr. Depardieu, as Porthos, looks like 250 pounds of pork tartare, and Mr. Malkovich, as Athos, mewls, whines and simpers like a defective dial tone. The less said about Gabriel Byrne’s mopey, depressing D’Artagnan the better. When he draws Queen Anne to his chest and mumbles, “To love you is a treason against France, but not to love you is a treason to my heart,” he looks stricken, and who can blame him? Nobody can say a line like that with a straight face, and nobody can sit through a movie like this with one, either.

The Movie Kept Hush-Hush

The second movie not worth your time is a major release called Hush, starring Jessica Lange and Gwyneth Paltrow. When any film opens without press screenings for critics, it’s a bad sign. “We’re not showing this one to anybody,” said the press agent. “How bad can it be?” said I. Directed by Jonathan Darby, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jane Rusconi, Hush is a thriller in the bright sunlight instead of the dark, but is otherwise just another trite, predictable variation on that tired old theme-the nervous bride, the naïve groom and the murderous mother-in-law. In this case, the bride is Helen (radiant Ms. Paltrow), the dreamboat she marries is Jackson (handsome Jonathon Schaech, from That Thing You Do!), and the Mother from hell is Martha (Ms. Lange in a bad wig).

When the pregnant Helen is traumatized by a knife-wielding thug, the newlyweds leave New York and head for his mother’s vast horse farm, Kilronan, in the rolling green hills of the South. Helen approaches Kilronan like Joan Fontaine arriving at Manderley, and it all seems like a dream come true until she gets a strong dose of Martha-a scheming, hard-drinking, chain-smoking control freak played by Jessica Lange like a cross between Blanche DuBois and Ma Barker. Masquerading behind Martha’s buttery charm is a nasty and sadistic piece of work. Helen catches on fast, Jackson seems paralyzed, and Martha goes slowly bananas.

After several people nearly perish accidentally on purpose, Helen finally convinces her gullible husband to escape, but logic is already on its way through the exit door ahead of them. Left alone together in the house, the dream turns nightmarish, Martha’s charm turns homicidal, and Helen, already in the first stages of labor, fights for her life and the fate of her baby. Keep your eye on those loving close-ups of that poisoned strawberry cheesecake. It’s to die for.

You have a choice. You can sit back and watch the dazzlingly beautiful Ms. Paltrow and the dazzlingly handsome Mr. Schaech and drool while Ms. Lange does all of the acting. Or you can try to figure out where they all went wrong. The film is clumsily written (“You bad girl, you found me out, didn’t you?”) and lamely directed (too many close-ups of that strawberry cheesecake telegraph every diabolical move), and it’s distressing to see a fine actress like Jessica Lange creeping around in the shadows clutching a hypodermic needle full of morphine.

Let Caruso Entertain You

Any cabaret excursion is a risk, but the cards Jim Caruso brings to the gaming table are impressive, and he plays them all skillfully. From happy hours in Dallas seafood restaurants with his mother on piano, to gigs leading the popular but now-defunct vocal trio Wise Guys, to sharing a bill at the White House with Lauren Bacall, this witty and engaging performer has come a long way. Now, in a solo act that is packing in the crowds down at Eighty Eight’s on weekends, Mr. Caruso would finally have a well-deserved star on his dressing-room door if the club was only big enough to have a dressing room. With Jonathan Smith on piano, this dashing, polished and seasoned pro has plenty of pep and good taste, too. When he sings ballads, you can expect the best ones-by Johnny Mercer, Johnny Mandel and the Gershwins. When he launches special material, like a rousing Fred Astaire medley arranged by Billy Stritch, he employs such hip writers as Michael Feinstein and Ann Hampton Callaway. When he talks about himself, his stories of producing a short-lived gabfest for Tammy Faye Bakker result in hilarious total recall.

On the brilliant new song “Miss You, Mr. Mercer,” by London songwriter Duncan Lamont, he furnishes evidence that smart new songs are still being written, if you know where to find them. On a cleverly juxtaposed duo of Nat King Cole’s jazzy “Errand Boy” and the palpitating Sammy Cahn-Saul Chaplin-Jimmie Lunceford pop classic “Rhythm in My Nursery Rhymes,” he proves he can swing, too. One minute he’s reflective and touching, the next minute he’s bouncy and irreverent, and there are surprises everywhere.

This is a sophisticated act filled with music and humor that is several cuts above the usual nightclub fare. Mr. Caruso would have been a sensation in the golden days of Leonard Sillman’s New Faces and Julius Monk’s revues at the dear departed Upstairs at the Downstairs. In today’s noise and drivel, he’s a breath of fresh air. Since this boy can already do just about anything that comes under the heading of entertainment, all he needs now is a bigger, better paying, more glamorous venue to do it in.

The Man in the Iron Mask: All for Nothing … Why They Call It Hush