Mooning Clooney Can’t Save Solaris

As bad movies go, a dismal catastrophe called Solaris can’t go away fast enough to suit me. This fiasco of

As bad movies go, a dismal catastrophe called Solaris can’t go away fast enough to suit me. This fiasco of infuriating pretentiousness and numbing incoherence is the first science-fiction film by the overrated Steven Soderbergh. Let’s hope it’s his last. Solaris , an elliptical tale of ghosts floating around in outer space, was already snored off the screen in a deadly 1972 Russian film by Andrei Tarkovsky. What sane person would want to remake a Russian sci-fi film in the first place? What kind of chowderhead would finance it? Many questions arise, but no answers follow. Despite the lure of George Clooney in his birthday suit, you’re on your own. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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It’s purportedly set in some futuristic age, although people still use cell phones, travel by subway and live in apartments that look like heavy-duty Reynolds Wrap. Seems positively retro to me. Mr. Clooney, as a shrink who is haunted by the suicide of his wife (Natascha McElhone), seems like the ideal problem-solver for the freaked-out scientists on a space station called Prometheus, stranded on a planet called Solaris. When he arrives, he’s shocked to discover the space commander has committed suicide, blood is seeping from the air vents, and the only two survivors (Viola Davis and Jeremy Davies) are locked in their cell pods, hysterical from being exposed to too much fear, paranoia and bad acting. Are they dead or just depressed? Before Mr. Clooney can determine whether Solaris is viable real estate or a failed source of alternative energy for the troubled planet Earth, an invisible force poisons the atmosphere psychologically, and the ghost of his dead wife revisits him, offering him a chance to relive the past, alleviate guilt and rectify mistakes. Suddenly the mirror image of Ms. McElhone is in his bed, asking “What is going on here? Where am I?” Questions the audience is asking, too. None of it makes one lick of sense, and if George Clooney can act there is no evidence of it here, so in the end he may or may not be back in his kitchen making a salad. Either way, the ghost of Ms. McElhone is here to stay. Floating through the house while he chops cucumbers, she’s eyeing the sleeping pills, still asking, “What is going on here? Where am I?” Who knows? Everyone speaks in a monotonous hum that rarely rises above a whisper. The picture fades and returns like a flashlight with a faulty battery. The sound comes and goes with an on-and-off switch. The dialogue Mr. Soderbergh has written is bad enough the first time, but the worse it gets the more the actors are forced to repeat it. “Dead men naked, they shall be one … and death shall have no dominion,” mumbles Mr. Clooney over and over, like he actually knows what he’s talking about. But for pure dopiness, he is upstaged by the rotten Jeremy Davies, an emaciated Charles Manson look-alike who stutters and twitches his way through every film with maddening mannerisms, acting with his fingers, doing obscene things with his tongue, drawing circles in thin air and addressing blank walls. Since Solaris is about ghosts, I heard one woman near me mutter, “Make him disappear.” No wonder this movie is being called the George Clooney butt flick. Yes, he moons a couple of times to see if you’re still awake. It’s the only thing that relieves the boredom, but trust me: Considering what it costs to go to the movies these days, this is one end that fails to justify the means.

If you figure out what this laughable and tedious stinker is about, send me a postcard. It’s so absurdly self-indulgent that if the projectionist ran the reels backward you wouldn’t know the difference. In 2000, Steven Soderbergh became the first director in Academy Award history with two Best Film nominations (for Traffic and Erin Brockovich ) in the same year. This year, with the abysmal Full Frontal and the brain-dead Solaris , he has two horrors in the same year that are both on my 10-worst list. I can’t feign surprise. The Soderbergh career is a source of mystery more baffling than the things that go on in Solaris . Since his breakthrough success with sex, lies, and videotape , he has turned out a largely gruesome oeuvre of commercial flops only a handful of Hollywood studio executives with deep pockets would be foolish enough to pay for, and only a handful of elitist critics could love. Time for a serious reality check, if you ask me.

A for Audacity, Z for Zzzzz .

It must be something they bottle in all that phony designer water. Before you even have time to recover from Solaris , more eccentric Hollywood lunacy belches forth with Adaptation , from delirious director Spike Jonze and self-delusional writer Charlie Kaufman, the potty team that spawned Being John Malkovich . On Hollywood sound stages, these people must own a piece of the Maalox concession.

Susan Orlean, the distinguished writer whose inspired book The Orchid Thief answered a clarion call for better journalism in the age of literary sound bites, told the people who optioned the film rights that her delicate nonfiction book about flower poaching in the Florida Everglades could never be adapted into a movie with narrative cohesion. She was right, and the feverish, messy Adaptation proves it. Stuck with a lyrical and poetic book of words without action, Kaufman decided to write a movie about the self-defeating task of adapting The Orchid Thief and make himself the central character. The result is a movie that couldn’t be made about a movie that couldn’t be made, made by people who couldn’t figure out how to make it. Not exactly an original idea (see Fellini’s 81 ¼ 2 ), but since when did such daunting hurdles as absence of originality, logic and seriousness of purpose stop screwballs with bankrolls from making bad movies nobody wants to see? It’s a Hollywood tradition.

The movie begins with paunchy, balding Charlie Kaufman (played by a freeze-dried Nicolas Cage) still conflicted by the neurotic problems he endured writing Being John Malkovich (cast members return in cameo appearances), plagued by panic and self-loathing, staring into the mirror while his hair falls out. He’s agonized by writer’s block, and what he thinks is impotence and cancer is really just your typical overpaid Hollywood hack’s perfectly understandable massive inferiority complex. But he’s still got this punishing movie to finish, based on The Orchid Thief , about John Laroche (Chris Cooper), a toothless fanatic who was arrested with three Seminole Indians for stealing rare orchids from alligator-infested swamps, and Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), who wrote up Laroche’s story in the pages of The New Yorker , then expanded her notes into an odd, highly praised best-seller. In Adaptation , all of these people come to life in whatever stages Kaufman’s unfilmable screenplay finds itself, according to the scene he’s writing at the time. But as Kaufman’s desperation to meet his deadline approaches suicidal dimensions, he gives up trying to explain the exotic world of 30,000 separate species of orchids (replete with Latin names) and their talent for adaptation that humans do not share, and invents a twin brother named Donald, a flaky slob who just got six figures for writing a lurid serial-killer musical.

Now we have two Nicolas Cages for the price of one. When they collaborate, an already capricious idea goes schizophrenic, and so does the movie. Breaking the odometer on its way to a head-on collision with a cement wall, Adaptation sends up and knocks down everything, including those famous, laughable three-day screenwriting seminars for which would-be scriptwriters pay money to be turned into cookie-cutters. (Brian Cox is very funny as a popular guru who warns hundreds of wannabes about the evils of narration, voice-over and plot without conflict, even though he can’t sell or write a screenplay himself.) Ignoring his blather about “epiphanies” and “character arcs,” Charlie goes for sensationalism. Susan Orlean turns into a gun-wielding porno-star drug addict, John Laroche gets munched by a gator the size of Fort Lauderdale, and Donald goes down in a blaze of gunfire … talk about literary license!

Even when Meryl Streep is slumming, she has style. I’m surprised the filmmakers aren’t up to their ears in a defamation lawsuit, but apparently the real Susan Orlean is so flattered to be played by Meryl Streep that she finds the whole thing amusing. Some of it is. But the sad fact remains that when the smoke clears, what they’ve done to The Orchid Thief resembles a tin can hit by a sledgehammer. I don’t mind unconventional. I can laugh at off-the-wall. And I’m not as allergic to new techniques as some might think (although there’s nothing new about this one). But it is my belief that movies have a duty to move you from one point to another in the telling of a story with a logic that sustains credibility. The problem with Spike Jonze is he doesn’t know how or when to stop. It’s strange that his cinematic pranks are so dull. Like the Farrelly Brothers, his credo seems to be “Outrage guarantees controversy,” especially with the critics. Also boredom. Adaptation gets an A for audacity and a Z for Zzzzz ….

Thanks, Mike, For Swanky Fun

The best thing I saw last week had nothing to do with movies. It was Short Talks on the Universe , a Broadway benefit for Friends in Deed and the Bay Street Theatre, produced by Mike Nichols. When he asked some of the best writers in New York to write an evening of plays lasting no more than 12 minutes each, hundreds of folks packed the Eugene O’Neill two nights in a row at up to $1,000 a clip. They got their money’s worth. Two generations bonded when Angela Lansbury, a symphony in beige cashmere, and Chris O’Donnell played a once-great star and a young stagehand who meet on the empty stage of a deserted theater marked for demolition in Terrence McNally’s Ghost Light . Bette Midler brought down the house reading a comic essay by Nora Ephron on why she hates her purse. In Elaine May’s Extra , curvy movie star Ellen Barkin and scrappy Alec Baldwin were a couple of elegant strangers at a party who hated each other on sight, insulted each other all the way through cocktails, then forgot and forgave on the dance floor the minute the band launched into a Cole Porter tune. Kevin Kline and Christine Baranski literally stole the show in Steve Martin’s hip, name-dropping skit about a tired married couple in bed who torture each other with lies about their extramarital sex lives to keep each other awake all night. The weakest play was a bit that went nowhere by Jon Robin Baitz, with Matthew Broderick as a tail-swishing Devil who arrived from Hell in a puff of smoke to claim the soul of a bad producer (Tony Roberts) in the men’s room at Sardi’s. After the actors took their bows, Mr. Nichols made his curtain speech, and Candice Bergen, Richard Avedon, Diane Sawyer and others too fabled to mention led a standing ovation you could hear a block away. The miscalculated addition of three long, irrelevant Stephen Sondheim songs was generally regarded as weirdly anticlimactic. Still, it was the kind of swanky event that only happens here. With pals like these, you almost wish Mike Nichols would stop directing and just throw parties.

Mooning Clooney Can’t Save Solaris