White Noise? Streisand’s Scarier!

The old year hasn’t really ended. The new year is still making up its mind. It’s a time for the crumbs-the morsels left over from the banquet that fall on the floor for the dogs.

The movies are off to a roaring thud. Michael Keaton is an actor with charm and skill, but when it comes to getting the right roles in quality films, he seems cursed by the same bad luck that plagues Christian Slater, Val Kilmer and Dennis Quaid. On the casting-couch Blackberry, he just ain’t on the A-list.

This is too bad, because in a turkey like the new non-thrilling thriller White Noise, he gives it the only redeeming value it’s got. This is the latest in a series of sci-fi yawns-er, yarns-that use technology as a fear factor. The thing to beware of here is E.V.P. (“electronic voice phenomenon”)-a process by which certain devices can record voices and images of the dead and communicate them from another sphere beyond the grave. Nothing wrong with that: You could tap into your mother’s grave in the middle of your first dinner party and ask how much oregano she used in her lasagna. But when Mr. Keaton, a California architect whose pregnant wife disappears without a trace, is flattened by grief and mourning, he starts getting incoming calls from her cell phone. The mystery man watching his house and following him to the office turns out to be a voice “channeler” who claims the wife is contacting him from “the other side.” Before he can call the magic number that blocks your phone from annoying pests like telemarketers, Mr. Keaton is not only receiving frantic messages from people who have “passed over,” but he can record their voices and images of their faces on his TV set. Obsessed, he’s got people yelling “Get out of there now!” coming out of the car radio, the computer hard drive and the boom box. But there are monsters in the monitors, too, and suddenly his house, which is beginning to look like a Sony tag sale, is invaded by menacing voices from Hell.

The dead wife (played by lovely Chandra West all too briefly, and mostly through screens obliterated with static) starts showing Mr. Keaton tragedies that haven’t happened yet, and all of the people he comes in contact with start meeting violent deaths. Deborah Kara Unger, an actress whose entire career is devoted to playing freaks in wacko movies that make no sense, is a bookstore owner who sees herself on the screen and jumps off the top of a building. And on it drags, until Mr. Keaton is led by voices to the kind of wet, deserted waterfront pier that has long ago been torn down in every major American city to make way for urban renewal, but can still be found only in Hollywood movies. It’s the underground hideout of another serial killer who … but enough! White Noise is too silly to describe, much less analyze. Michael Keaton is rarely shown doing anything but punching keyboards and staring at computer screens. Not much opportunity to act a plotless, brain-dead script by Niall Johnson, under the guidance of first-time director Geoffrey Sax, who is more fascinated by silver coffee pots and lines of cable terminals than he is in photographingpeople. Michael Keaton fans will probably be sound asleep long before he comes to the kind of ghastly end that awaits most computer nerds, but followers of paranormal mumbo-jumbo might be interested in the film’s postscript. According to this dumb waste of time, of the thousands of E.V.P. messages received daily, one out of 12 is “overtly threatening.” Hmm. As good a reason as any to go back to the rotary phone.

Meet the Fockers is the kind of crappy, witless garbage for which even the most seasoned garbage collector is unprepared. Without one micro-second of freshness, originality or taste on display anywhere in this moronic mess, one can only wonder how such proven talents as Barbra Streisand, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Blythe Danner could trash their reputations so crudely. As Ben Stiller and Teri Polo assemble their loathsome future in-laws from Hell on an island for a curdled family caucus before the longest-planned wedding in history, Mr. Hoffman does an embarrassing arthritic salsa, Mr. Stiller wears rubber tits, Ms. Danner watches a dog humping a cat, and Ms. Streisand-as the obnoxious, loud-mouthed author of a book called Is Your Vagina Happy?-gives Mr. De Niro a rubdown while he passes gas. Looking fat, fuzzy-headed and gruesome as a female Danny DeVito, this is Ms. Streisand’s first film in eight years, and the most fatal assignment of her entire career. For an artist and former “funny girl” who prides herself on values, she has loaned her name to a vulgar farce that isn’t remotely amusing. Greed and money, two evils she pretends to deplore in her politics, are the prime motivating factors in a labored horror that is worlds beneath her. Come to your senses, Barbra, before the loathsome Fockers and everything they stand for becomes a dreaded series and, worse, a lowbrow, right-wing opiate for the dumbed-down masses you’re always trying to elevate.

With Jeremy Irons as the morbid merchant and Al Pacino as the wretched Jewish moneylender who ruins his life, Michael Radford’s fiery adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice promises more than it delivers. Some of the Bard’s humor is mined expertly, and the play-fueled by passion, hypocrisy, religious intolerance and financial slavery-retains its visceral sense of atmosphere in the powerful and putatively liberal city of canals and gondolas. But the constant rain and mist form a smoldering maze that is not for the vision-impaired, and the mumbling and scratching of Al Pacino often cry out for subtitles. Not for classical purists. Rich from fleecing everyone in town, Shylock has a skuzzy power, but faces indignity and danger when he ventures beyond the safety of the Judaica where he lives and lends. In another part of the same city, there is Antonio (Jeremy Irons), the Christian business investor who has grown morose over the doomed fate of his trading vessels and his increasing isolation from his best friend, the young Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), who has fallen in love with Portia (newcomer Lynn Collins). When Antonio, low on cash but with a respectably high credit rating, stakes his friend Bassanio for a loan of 3,000 ducats from the awful Shylock, part of the bond they seal demands a daunting risk: If Antonio defaults, he must forfeit a pound of his own flesh. Much Sturm und Drang ensues, although not quite with the accustomed elegance and pageantry one has come to associate with traditional stagings of The Merchant of Venice. Director Radford goes for cross-dressing and homoeroticism to spice up the dryness of the plot, and shots of lambs to the slaughter and Jews praying in the synagogue accent the Jewish subtext, but I found all of that jazz as distracting as it is historically unnecessary.

Some of the performances are acceptable. Mr. Fiennes and Ms. Collins forge a splendid chemistry, and Kris Marshall (best known as the loopy “God of Sex” in the lame comedy Love, Actually) is a pleasure as Bassanio’s buddy Gratiano. On the other hand, Mr. Irons demonstrates an unnecessary amount of exhaustion, while Mr. Pacino’s losses before reaching his exaggerated breaking point seem better suited to a longshoreman who has just been denied a Medicare pension. Director Radford, who scored a big success in 1994 with the Italian film The Postman, seems like an obvious choice for this project, and his use of the Doge’s Palace, the Bridge of Sighs and other postcard Venetian locations makes for some intriguing shots. But he hasn’t got a clue how to bring a Method poseur from the Actors Studio like Al Pacino to life. Instead of conquering or enhancing the cadences of the text, he whines the lines in a droning Yiddish accent that sometimes refuses to rise above a guttural whisper, then roars like a bullhorn, and never sounds far from the Bronx. When he petitions the court with “I crave de law,” it’s painfully reminiscent of the young Bernie Schwartz (a.k.a. Tony Curtis) mumbling “Yonda is de castle of me fodder” in one of his early Prince Valiant hairdos. Scholars will be appalled by additions to the text that cannot be found in any published volume of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (including a prologue about anti-Semitism in the 16th century), and by the scene in which Bassanio kisses Antonio on the mouth with a passion that goes beyond chummy camaraderie. At a running time of more than 130 minutes, the film is too long. A worthy try, but no cigar.

A Tribute to Cy

The theatrical event of the week-make that the year-was the ASCAP tribute to the late, great Cy Coleman. It was also the kind of thrilling occasion that can only happen in the Apple. In front of the Majestic Theater on 44th Street, the line on the left snaked its way to the end of the block, turned the corner of Eighth Avenue and extended all the way to 45th Street. The line on the right was five deep all the way to Times Square. Shubert Alley was a parking lot of people. Onstage and off, the most talented and powerful movers and shakers in show business celebrated a man who gave too much and died too soon, as beloved as he was respected. He raised the bar for songwriters with show after show celebrating, in the words of James Naughton, “heels in loafers and loafers in heels.” Proving what blazing talent can do to light up an empty stage, Chita Rivera hit the center spot in orange sequins, leading a sleazy, cheesy line of dance-hall doozies, hectoring the audience into a screaming ovation with “Big Spender.” Lucie Arnaz recreated “Hey Look Me Over,” the showstopper Cy wrote for her Mom (Lucille Ball, in case you were born four years ago or suffer from Alzheimer’s) in Wildcat. She was joined by her own daughter, Katharine Luckinbill, a young chip off an old block who hopes to carry on the family tradition. The beat goes on. One of his future collaborators for a forthcoming musical, Wendy Wasserstein (erudite, clear, no “duhs” or “uhs”) told funny stories about Cy’s work habits over lunches at the Friar’s Club and thanked him publicly for providing so much work for so many lady lyricists (Peggy Lee, Carolyn Leigh, Dorothy Fields, Betty Comden et al.) through the years. Jim Dale and John Schneider recreated the wit Cy provided for the title characters in Barnum and The Will Rogers Follies. Writer A.E. Hotchner told a hilarious story about a miserable night in the Florida swamps when he and Cy were forced to sleep in a compact Chevy. Hotch was ready for a stretcher the next morning, but Cy survived the mud, rain and mosquitoes to emerge from the back seat with a smile on his face and a musical score sheet in his hand. When an irritable Hotch asked how Cy could he be so cheerful, he replied: “I got the 11 o’clock number!” Marilyn and Alan Bergman wrote special lyrics to one of Cy’s most popular hits (“Every tune has Cy’in’it … There’s no de-ny’in’it …. The safest bet to come … With all shows set to come … The best is yet to come!”) and Brian Stokes Mitchell sang it with an ace trio headed by jazz pianist Lee Musiker while the audience kept time by snapping hundreds of fingers. The most thunderous ovations were for Lillias White, who drove the mob to a screaming frenzy when she relived her Tony-winning number as the tiredest hooker on the block in The Life, and for James Naughton and Gregg Edelman’s smashing alter ego sensation “Without Me You’re Nothing” from City of Angels. Neil Simon praised Cy as a genius whose songs will be revered forever by singers: “Just ask Frank Sinatra-when it’s your turn to meet him.”

Out they came: Bea Arthur, Chuck Cooper, Michele Lee, Donna McKechnie, Ann Reinking, Judy Kaye and on and on-and all at 12 noon! They sang, they danced, they talked about his positive attitude, self-confidence, capacity for loyalty and friendship, big heart and talent for musically covering every emotion known to man in every style, mood and tempo. But they saved the best for last. The stage went dark. A soft spot focused on the empty piano. And then, the beatific piano chords and the husky, crooning voice of the one and only man himself, singing a brand-new Cy Coleman song that was perfect for the occasion, as though he planned the finale himself: “No tears and blames / Just fun and games / … I can see myself out / By this time, I should know the way … Moving right along / I think it’s time for one last song … Help me exit with ease … A little traveling music, please …. ” Big stars too famous to mention were sobbing as a pin spot hit a smiling, radiant photograph of the man who won and accepted so many honors in his 74 years that he was in danger of developing “award elbow.” It was a memorial service nobody will forget. Cy Coleman’s footprints may be gone, but his songprints live forever. White Noise? Streisand’s Scarier!