Communities Under Pressure: Developers Besiege Florida Island

John Sayles’ Sunshine State , from his own screenplay, was shot on Amelia Island, Fla. He calls the place Plantation Island, and there’s also Delrona Beach (“Delrona” is a playful hybrid of Delray and “Daytona). Mr. Sayles and his longtime producer, Maggie Renzi, are particularly interested in Amelia Island’s biracial history and sociology, its separate white and black enclaves. Mr. Sayles and Ms. Renzi are also interested in the enormous changes in Florida, year after year, decade after decade; Sunshine State is concerned with the impact of these changes on various human lives.

In Sunshine State , American Beach is renamed Lincoln Beach, and the complex narratives are divided between white and black protagonists. Marly Temple (Edie Falco) has abandoned her brief fling with show business as a “Weeki Wachee Mermaid” to run her father’s decrepit motel. Furman Temple (Ralph Waite) is too sick to operate the place any more, but he is ornery enough and stubborn enough to refuse the many offers to sell the motel, and thus enable Marly to leave a place where she has suffered through a messy divorce from the shiftless Steve (Richard Edson), who is now stalking her. Marly has also been betrayed by her golf-pro boyfriend, Scotty Duval (Marc Blucas). Her mother, Delia (Jane Alexander), lives in a world of her own at the community theater; she’s also devoted to a variety of more or less hopeless environmental causes. The island is besieged by an army of would-be developers, including a landscape architect named Jack Meadows (Timothy Hutton), who is immediately attracted to Marly, and vice versa.

On the other side of the island, Desiree Perry (Angela Bassett) is returning home for the first time in 25 years (her parents sent her away in disgrace when she became pregnant as a teenager). Now she is proudly and newly married to an anesthesiologist, Reggie Perry (James McDaniel), and is enjoying a modest success in “show business,” though she has appeared only in industrial films and infomercials. The parallel with Marly’s “career” links the two women in an ironic futility that Mr. Sayles has used over the years as a corrective to what he considers the delusional American Dream. Desiree’s domineering mother, Eunice Stokes (Mary Alice), has not lost any of her power to intimidate her daughter, and Desiree vainly tries to exorcise this power with her newfound self-confidence. She too discovers that developers are overwhelming the area; they’re trying to persuade her mother to sell the house and property. Flash Phillips (Tom Wright), the former football star who abandoned Desiree when she needed him most, pretends that he’s been hired by an African-American company dedicated to helping blacks. When she discovers that Flash is trying to con her-he’s actually working for the same white syndicate that’s seeking to buy out Marly’s motel and the rest of the island -Desiree finally comes to terms with her past, and with her mother.

There is a farcical subplot with booster Francine Pinckney (Mary Steenburgen) cheering on the island’s second annual Buccaneer Day with much ridiculous hoopla. Here Mr. Sayles drifts into Carl Hiaasen territory, with too much strain and not enough humor. This is my one quibble with a film that is otherwise very well-written and very well-acted, and that also reveals once more Mr. Sayles’ deep concern for his characters. But come to think of it, I am also disturbed that the film leaves Desiree in better psychic shape than Marly, who is left out to dry. I had somewhat the same problem with the dark ending of Limbo (1999): In both instances, Mr. Sayles creates too much sympathy for his characters to cast them adrift at the end. It leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth. If this be realism, I say long live romance.

Welcome to Climax, Nev.

Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), from a screenplay by I.A.L. Diamond and Wilder, based on the Italian play L’Ora Della Fantasia by Anna Bonacci, will be shown at Film Forum (209 West Houston Street, 727-8110, from June 21 to 27) in a newly rediscovered European version, including one climactic (so to speak) scene deemed unduly obscene for American audiences. But, of course, that was in 1964, just a few years before the Production Code began to crumble. Nowadays, the uncensored Kiss Me, Stupid would get at most a PG-13. There’s no nudity, no four-letter words. So what’s all the excitement about? Since I have come around to being one of the film’s few staunch defenders against an army of detractors, I can play devil’s advocate for a bit and explain why most people-including most of my students (though I’ve tried to brainwash them)-genuinely dislike the film, and consider it one of Wilder’s biggest failures.

The film seemed jinxed from the beginning. The first setback was the heart attack suffered by Peter Sellers, who was meant to play the role eventually given to Ray Walston. Perhaps Mr. Walston lends to the film a harsher quality than the comparatively childlike Sellers would have-this is, after all, a sex farce. (The harshness stems also from Wilder’s insistence that the film be shot in black and white at a time when color films were the norm.) I have no idea what Kiss Me, Stupid would have been with Sellers and his inspired silliness. He certainly would have been funnier than Mr. Walston-if, that is, the script-worshipping Wilder had allowed Sellers to improvise to his heart’s content, which seems unlikely. Sooner or later, something would’ve had to give, and that probably wouldn’t have been Wilder. But let’s limit ourselves to the film that is, and not the film that might have been.

It begins with a Dean Martin nightclub act in Vegas that establishes “Dino’s” womanizing ways. As he drives back to Los Angeles, his car breaks down in Climax, Nev., where a Beethoven-sweatshirted piano teacher and songwriter named Orville J. Spooner (Mr. Walston) allows himself to be persuaded by his garage-mechanic lyricist, Barney (Cliff Osmond), to let Dino stay at his home while Barney tinkers with Dino’s car. Along the way, it’s established that Orville is insanely jealous of his pretty wife’s appeal to every man on the planet. And now Dino is lodged in the same house with Zelda Spooner (Felicia Farr-or “Lambchop,” as Orville fondly calls her. Barney’s plan is for Orville to play all the team’s songs for Dino while he is being entranced by Zelda. Dino never gets to see Zelda, however, because Orville drives her out of the house on some pretext-and so Barney recruits Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak) from the Belly Button Café, and Orville pretends that Polly is his wife.

Here the film shifts gears, as Polly and Zelda switch roles for one night, with Polly becoming warmly domestic with Orville and Zelda becoming challengingly sassy with Dino. All ends well for Dino and Orville and Zelda and Polly and Barney, but Orville and Polly and Zelda have been transformed by their experience. Wilder places no onus on sex and none on success, and does not penalize characters for any misstep with either.

There are other flaws I should mention. Mr. Osmond is somewhat too broad as Barney, and other than Polly, the “waitresses” at the Belly Button are unappealing caricatures, which calls to mind the old charge of Wilder’s misogyny. Yet what audiences can’t forgive in Kiss Me, Stupid are the passages in which characters display affectionate feelings toward each other in the midst of farcical chaos. Polly and Zelda are lovely creations in this regard, and I recommend Kiss Me, Stupid to the skeptical with no reservations whatsoever.

Double Crossing

Alan Taylor’s The Emperor’s New Clothes , from a screenplay by Kevin Molony, Alan Taylor and Herbie Wave, based on the novel The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys, tells the fanciful story of a plot to plant a double of Napoleon on the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic, off the African coast, where Napoleon in fact died in exile in 1821. This fictional revision of history in the movie enables the real Napoleon to leave St. Helena as a crewman on a ship while a Napoleon impersonator stays behind on the island. The double agrees to expose himself as an impostor once the real Napoleon has had time to reach Paris and rally his old supporters. The plan goes awry when the fake Napoleon becomes attached to his role and refuses to give up his new imperial identity.

Ian Holm plays both Napoleons to the hilt, and I can’t think of another great actor of short stature who could bring off this very fragile conceit with such wit, humor, conviction, gravity and deep vulnerability. It’s said, perhaps too glibly, that Mr. Holm disappears into his roles so completely that he’s unrecognizable from one character to the next. In all my encounters with Mr. Holm, both on the screen and on the stage, I have never failed to recognize him in a part. Too many critics confuse great acting with the art of disguise. Mr. Holm does not have to disguise himself to inhabit a role: He simply plays his part as it’s written, without too much fuss about less being more or more being less. In The Emperor’s New Clothes , he rises to great heights when he finds himself in a sanitarium garden packed with insane Napoleons in full costume, striking the familiar Napoleonic pose. He realizes that he can never reclaim his true identity, especially after his gluttonous double eats himself into an early grave-and into all the world’s headlines.

He assumes the former identity of Eugene, the fake Napoleon, and finds happiness with Pumpkin (Iben Hjejle), an impoverished melon-seller whose husband died before Napoleon could reach him with the pre-arranged password that would signal the regrouping of the Grand Army. It soon becomes clear even to Napoleon himself that his time has passed, that there’s no one in Paris or anywhere in France ready to rise up once again and restore the emperor to his throne and make all of Europe quake anew. At one point, Pumpkin declares that she always hated Napoleon for causing the death of so many Frenchmen, and for conscripting her husband (though he died peacefully in his bed). Mr. Holm’s expression is one of marvelous subtlety, mingling guilt and a long-delayed awakening to the lives of ordinary people. This is a good yarn, successful and insightful, well-told and well-acted.

Communities Under Pressure: Developers Besiege Florida Island