The dull days of January are a good time to play catch-up. In the onslaught of holiday movies, I missed a few. Here they are: Rumor has it that Rumor Has It … is not very good. Rumor no more. It is awful. Forced to endure lame direction by Rob Reiner and a diabolically, dumbfoundingly dreadful screenplay by T.M. (Ted) Griffin, a game, attractive and usually reliable cast is reduced to the shameful sloppiness of amateurs. Oh, well. They’ve survived worse. They’ll survive Rumor Has It … , an anemic milkshake that turns into buttermilk before you can find the exit door.
Assuming you haven’t seen it (what, are you crazy?), the plot is about a Pasadena family that The Graduate was based on. On New Year’s Eve in 1963, a 21-year-old college nerd sleeps with a 42-year-old woman and runs away with her daughter. They marry different people. The young man’s roommate publishes a book called The Graduate. Tongues wag. In 1967, the movie comes out, with Dustin Hoffman as the goon, Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson and Katharine Ross as her daughter, and the deepest, darkest secret of one Pasadena family becomes immortalized.
Cut to 1997. Jennifer Aniston, as a neurotic Manhattan career girl who can’t write anything better than obituaries for The New York Times, flies to Pasadena with her fiancé (Mark Ruffalo) for the wedding of her little sister (Mena Suvari) and, through a series of unconvincing plot maneuvers too contrived to go into, becomes convinced that Mrs. Robinson was her drunken, chain-smoking grandmother (all grown up to be Shirley MacLaine). Worse still, she thinks her own mother, who died when she was 9, was pregnant by the same man (now grown up to be Kevin Costner, who looks nothing whatever like Dustin Hoffman). She has nothing in common with her family and hates Pasadena, so when she learns that her mother had an affair with Mr. Costner nine months before she was born, she ships her fiancé home and looks Mr. Costner up, thinking he’s her father.
Who knew he’d be so handsome and rich and groovy and wear designer clothes and own his own vineyard? He flies her to his house in Half Moon Bay, then to the Napa Valley wine country and back to San Francisco for a charity ball; all she’s got is a backpack, out of which comes an amazing array of evening dresses and nighties. Before it’s over, Mr. Costner has slept with every woman in her family, which makes Ms. Aniston something of a slut. He claims she couldn’t be sleeping with her own father, because he’s been sterile for 39 years due to “testicular trauma” delivered by a goalie on his soccer team who kicked the wrong ball. These are the jokes, folks, and they don’t get any better or cheaper.
Nothing is remotely believable here, especially the bitchy, obnoxious lines they’ve given Shirley MacLaine as the grandmother from Hell (“Come in, I’ll put on a pot of bourbon”). There is also the shuddering sight of a trashy, platinum-blond Kathy Bates as an aunt who mixes Bloody Marys all day and sings songs from South Pacific. It’s all pretty gruesome, and Ms. Aniston is so twitchy and screwy that she seems to be going through menopause 20 years too early.
If you do want to see something you might have unwisely overlooked in the year-end pandemonium, head straight for Woody Allen’s brilliant, mesmerizing Match Point. American critics who have been less than loving toward Woody in recent years are going ape over Match Point, while Europeans, who always genuflect and shower him with awards, have been more lukewarm. Go figure. Match Point is my favorite Woody Allen movie since Manhattan Murder Mystery, but I disagree with comparisons to Hitchcock. More like A Place in the Sun set in London, if you ask me, with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (the British Tom Cruise, only a better actor) in the Montgomery Clift role and Scarlett Johansson stealing the show in the Shelley Winters part, rewritten as the only American character in the film—a loose, free-loving, confused Yank (Yankette?) who stands between the hero and his place in the upper echelons of English society. It’s a film of great resourcefulness, with a moral about luck and fate that is chilling.
Mr. Rhys-Meyers plays Chris Wilton, an opera-loving tennis coach on the make at an exclusive private club, who befriends a rich client named Tom (Matthew Goode), worms his way into a posh job with the help of Tom’s parents (Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton) and prepares to marry the boss’ daughter, Chloe (Emily Mortimer). He’s not really a cad or a bounder, but he’s a poor boy from Ireland who is new to London and rather ambitious. The trouble is, on a weekend in the country at the estate of his new mentors, he becomes sexually aroused by Tom’s fiancée, Nola (Ivory-complexioned Ms. Johansson), a neurotic American actress who has the bad form to get pregnant and complicate things with no end in sight. Nola is the key to sensual ecstasy; Chloe is the loving and supportive girl who can open all the doors to wealth and success.
For a while, Chris is shagging them both, torn between the best of both worlds. But his luck begins to change when Nola’s nagging and Chloe’s craving for a family of her own lead him to reckless behavior. He’d like to have his crumpets and eat them too, but the only way out is murder.
Sex in Woody’s films is usually comical to the point of parody. Here, however, we get the whole banana (no pun intended), which explains the young man’s obsession (the hedonistic American is wilder in bed than the sweet but dull Brit) and outlines his emotional dilemma. The point of the film is that his plan to escape goes wrong because of a mere twist of bad luck. It’s like the spin of a roulette wheel: One move to the right or the left, and you can win or lose everything you’ve invested. In Chris’ final solution, the ball, in fact, falls on the wrong side of the net. Hence Match Point, a term in tennis that serves as the title of the film.
Crossing the Atlantic for the first time, Woody does for London and the idyllic British countryside what he has always done for Manhattan and the Hamptons. From the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and the trendy art galleries on the Thames, to polo ponies and grouse hunting in Buckinghamshire, he transports you to a different world, but it’s just as entrancing as the old neighborhood back home. You wouldn’t mistake Match Point as the work of a British director: London is too luxurious, its inhabitants too trippy and operatic. Still, it has Woody’s humor and subtlety; no British bluntness here. The acting is first-cabin all the way. And it’s genuinely moving. Move it to the top of your must-see list.
Life Is …
Fateless, the first important release of 2006, is the autobiographical study of a 14-year-old Hungarian Jewish boy who miraculously lived through Hitler’s death camps, written by Imre Kertész, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002. This disturbing film, by the respected director Lajos Koltai, is worthy and serious and heartbreaking, but hard to recommend. On the one hand, I understand the need for survivors of the Holocaust to tell their stories in books and films. On the other hand, I hope they won’t judge us too harshly if we sometimes look the other way. When it comes to the blackest chapter in the history of human depravity, there are limits to how much we can read, watch and endure while they remember.
Mr. Kertész, who wrote his own screen adaptation, calls himself Gyuri Köves in the film, which begins when his father’s business fails and he’s sent to a forced-labor camp, leaving the teenager home with his stepmother. Suddenly, on a warm day in June 1944, he is forced off a bus in Budapest and crowded into a boxcar on its way to Auschwitz. As the hope drains from the inmates’ lives, the color drains out of the film. For more than two hours, we follow the innocent, frightened youngster as he is transported from one concentration camp to another, while his friends disappear and he is surrounded by strangers. Surviving pestilence, torture, disease, starvation and bitter cold, the boy surrenders all hope of rescue, sacrificing his youth for a scrap of stale bread or a pair of shoes with mud seeping through the soles.
Because the film is told through the eyes of a boy who hasn’t yet given up on the human race, the story has moments of humor and bonding. Baffled and alone, he still struggles to find meaning in his tragic fate as he stoically suffers the brutality of camp life. And there are miracles: On his way to the crematorium in a cart of naked corpses, the boy is dragged off to the hospital in Buchenwald and saved by doctors who were fellow prisoners. At no time does he play the victim. Sadly, however, the hardships didn’t end when the camps were liberated: Trying to get home to the rubble that was Budapest under the Russians is just as daunting. Back in the ruins, Gyuri is forced to draw upon the memory of small gestures of humanity to stay sane, but in the end, we are brought to tears by the lonely face and lucid mind of a child whose heart is as pure—and as cold—as snow.
Marcell Nagy’s performance in the central role is haunting. Precocious at the beginning, then maturing into astonishing alienation in the postwar community of his youth, the young actor’s transformation is profound. Mr. Kertész’s script offers a nuanced, original and deeply philosophical take on occupation-era Europe that sets Fateless apart from other Holocaust dramas. The sprawling themes and cast of hundreds make it the most expensive movie ever made in Hungary, and it’s been nominated for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film. But director Koltai expertly renders the private, intimate details that make the story so devastating with an atmospheric use of color and lighting that justify his reputation as a world-famous cinematographer. (His most recent film was the lavish Being Julia, which offers proof of his versatility.) More than just another Holocaust memoir, Fateless is something special: an unforgettable portrait of grief and hope, loss and transcendence.