A Crime-Free, One-Dimensional Future

What new hell is this? In the shallow, noisy and pretentious Minority Report , we have seen the future. It’s not pretty.

There are two Steven Spielbergs. One is the cinematic historian who instructs, informs and shapes a universal consciousness that makes us aware of our stake in the human race in masterpieces like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan . The other is a 12-year-old comic-book collector weaned on sci-fi and stuck in the twilight zone of his own nursery, who turns out polished but moronic time-wasters about dinosaurs, space ships, Indiana Jones and Peter Pan. Quel doppelgänger . I always have a hard time believing the same man capable of both greatness ( The Color Purple ) and trash ( Jurassic Park ). Occasionally, a film like E.T. or Raiders of the Lost Ark emerges to meld the technical proficiency of the craftsman with the passion of the storyteller. Bloody, violent, cold and preposterous, Minority Report is not one of them.

Despite an astronomical budget and a gallimaufry of twists and turns enhanced by special effects, Minority Report has a boring, one-dimensional story line you could write on one page of Big Chief tablet paper with a No. 2 lead pencil. Derived from a story by sci-fi spinmaster Philip K. Dick (the man responsible for Blade Runner ), it’s set in Washington, D.C., in 2054. Crime has been wiped out thanks to an experimental Pre-Crime Unit called a “priori,” developed by wacko scientist Max von Sydow, that can predict murders before they happen. Tom Cruise plays Detective John Anderton, the futuristic cop in charge of preventing homicides with the aid of three psychic visionaries called “Pre-Cogs” who float around in a liquid wading pool wired, drugged and having nightmares. Waving his arms like Leonard Bernstein in the orchestra pit, Anderton can download images of clues, suspects and crime scenes, then lead his futuristic crimebusters to the killers before they pull the trigger. With beady eyes, flexed jaw and a buzz cut, he’s a man whose life is already so haunted by the abduction and murder of his only son that he looks and acts creepier than the Pre-Cogs.

The world has apparently survived John Ashcroft, because the Justice Department thinks the Pre-Crime Unit is too controversial a concept to go national. In a subplot that goes nowhere, Irish hunk Colin Farrell is wasted as the dull F.B.I. investigator from the Attorney General’s office who covets Anderton’s job. The lulling narrative drones on until the tables turn and Anderton is named by the Pre-Cogs as the next murderer. From here, the movie turns from a whodunit into a who’ll-do-it as the flawed hero (he’s hooked on drugs) has 36 hours to solve his own case and clear his name by breaking into the Pre-Crime lab and downloading the info from the Pre-Cog who predicted it-and Mr. Spielberg sweats it all out, stretching the film’s playing time to two hours plus. Mr. Cruise, who barely survived Vanilla Sky , one of the worst movies ever made, bares his teeth and pecs in a variation of the same role he played in that fiasco-a man driven insane by a technological bad dream. Not much of a stretch there, and the techno-gibberish about “Pre-Cog echoes” and “prevision data bases,” spouted with a terminally pained expression from the ludicrous script by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen, almost flattens him.

Meanwhile, Mr. Spielberg pours on the gore. In one scene, the star has his eyeballs surgically removed because in the future, we are told, identity searches scan only eyes. (Gee, whatever happened to fingerprints?) Carrying around those Tom Cruise eyes in a plastic bag as a sentimental keepsake, he drops one retina through the cracks of a drain while the other one hangs by its bloody optical nerves. Not a movie for anyone considering corrective Lasik procedures, or even changing contact lenses. Also not a movie where acting counts. Samantha Morton, with a shaved head, has an out-of-body experience as the Pre-Cog who disagrees with the others (this is called a “minority report”). Tim Blake Nelson plays the fiend who contains all of the killers, rapists and psychos from the past in data pods. The marvelous Lois Smith, who steals her brief scenes with relish as a horticulturist who holds the secrets to the minority reports, is nutty as a pecan pie. But the characters aren’t human enough to be real, or metaphorical enough to be comic caricatures. In the end, they are all upstaged by the macabre effects, created by production designer Alex McDowell, that make the whole movie look as though it was staged inside a stainless-steel paint bucket.

When in doubt, bring on the gimmicks. Mr. Spielberg complies, showing off the latest stunts, tricks and toys as distractions far more interesting than the movie itself. Futuristic subway riders reading digital newspapers in which the headlines change between stops. Cops flying through space between skyscrapers like Superman in magnetic-levitation cars. Angry trees that grab you like the nasty apple orchard in The Wizard of Oz , injecting a poison that can only be cured by a foul-tasting brewed tea. Animatronic spiders slithering through walls and floorboards to identify suspects by shining a light in their eyes. Loopily cinematic, Mr. Spielberg the practical joker even stages a chase scene in a Gap store.

Some things never change. Niche filmmaking will obviously still plague us in 2054, and so will the serious, unsettling questions it raises but fails to answer. Why is it that the visions of the Pre-Cogs never extend beyond Washington, D.C.? How will the Orwellian effect of the new technology invade privacy and affect civil rights? If the Pre-Cogs see different images, how can you prove a crime is going to happen beyond a reasonable doubt? In the ideological confusion, the film loses its credibility and raises more legal, social and political questions than it can handle. Mr. Cruise gets lost in the stew like a carrot. He looks like hell and goes through hell to earn his millions, but in Minority Report he’s just a small black hole at the center of an even bigger black hole.

An Irresistible Romp in Williamstown

In the present confused national climate, the august and highly esteemed Williamstown Theatre Festival has kicked off its 48th summer season on the leafy campus of Williams College with a splendid production of Where’s Charley? , a buoyant frolic with nothing on its mind but entertainment. From now to June 30, a stress-free environment is guaranteed that will put a smile on your face and keep it there. New Yorkers are flocking there in droves.

Where’s Charley? , the first Broadway musical by Frank Loesser, won a Tony Award for Ray Bolger in 1949 and repeated its success in a 1952 movie that turned the song “Once in Love with Amy” into a national obsession. But where’s Charley now? The movie has never, to my knowledge, been shown on TV, and the stage musical remains much revered but rarely produced. Williamstown has remedied all that with the kind of fun-filled romp that comes at a time when we’re desperately in need of one.

The one-joke plot is about Charley, the popular but prankish Oxford rake who frantically dons the bombazine and graying curls of his millionaire aunt, Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez from Brazil (“Where the nuts come from!”), so that Amy, the girl of his dreams, will have a proper chaperone during her visits to his college rooms. Charley’s roommate, Jack, is besotted by Amy’s friend Kitty, and both girls think the boys are hiding an older woman when Charley’s real aunt shows up, pursued by Jack’s penniless father; meanwhile, Charley in drag is being stalked by the awful Mr. Spettigue, Amy’s fortune-hunting guardian. Throw in some mistaken identities, quick changes in closets and behind ivy walls, and everyone dashing madly about trilling “Where’s Charley?”, and much chaos ensues. Even as dated college musicals go, Where’s Charley? grows the corn higher than the proverbial elephant’s eye.

George Abbott’s book has been trimmed for the Williamstown production, which is staged with the speed of a breakneck burlesque by the brilliant director Nicholas Martin. And in the role of Charley, the legitimate stage has found a formidable new star in the rubber-faced clown Christopher Fitzgerald. He doesn’t have Ray Bolger’s libidinous legs, but he sings and dances with wild abandon and recreates Bolger’s audience sing-along on “Once in Love with Amy” with showstopping charm. Camouflaging the corn with stylized characterizations, period costumes, nimble choreography and James Noone’s trompe l’oeil sets of indigo skies and kelly green topiaries, director Martin has created a farcical cartoon of endless delights. This isn’t easy with a stage that is in itself an obstacle course of trap doors and raked walkways, with the orchestra pit in a hole in the middle of the proscenium. It’s a miracle the entire cast doesn’t end up performing in leg casts and Ace bandages.

Was the world ever this innocent and carefree? Don’t everybody answer at once. But even when your eyebrows rise with incredulity, you will find the Frank Loesser score irresistible. I had forgotten how much I missed “My Darling, My Darling,” or the Sousa-inspired “New Ashmolean Marching Society and Students’ Conservatory Band.” It’s a pleasure to rediscover the obscure Loesser ballad “Lovelier Than Ever” and Amy’s hilarious comic aria, “The Woman in His Room,” triumphantly performed by the enchanting Jessica Stone, who looks like Tweety Pie and belts like a cross between Betty Boop and Betty Hutton. For the bumbling seduction scene between the pompous old windbag Spettigue and the hapless, befuddled Charley in drag, an actual Betty Hutton song called “Why Fight the Feeling,” from the Frank Loesser film score for Let’s Dance , has been happily added. In the riotous tea-pouring scene where, to his horror, Charley uses his top hat as a cream pitcher, the veteran trouper Paxton Whitehead-who once enthralled audiences on the Williamstown stage as an unforgettable Sherlock Holmes -is a knockout as the greedy, malevolent Spettigue.

Distinguished by the customary high standards for which it was awarded this year’s Tony Award for excellence in regional theater, Williamstown has opened its 2002 season with a fireworks display. In the smaller Nikos, adjacent to the main stage, I also saw a smashing production of the British import Under the Blue Sky , directed by John Erman, with electrifying star turns by Marsha Mason and Annabella Sciorra. The rest of the summer program, which ends Aug. 25, includes four world premieres by such established playwrights as Eric Bogosian, Cheryl L. West, Dan O’Brien and Alfred ( Driving Miss Daisy ) Uhry, as well as a new play from Canada starring Olympia Dukakis, a forgotten classic from the Yiddish theater by Sholem Asch, and established works by George Kaufman and Moss Hart, Joe Orton, and Tennessee Williams. If Where’s Charley? is any indication, the tone is set for a bracing frozen cosmo of a summer.

A Crime-Free, One-Dimensional Future