Unexpurgated Reviews (Part II)


July 20, 2001

by Edward Jay Epstein

If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave Oscars to films that successfully expand works taken from other media, it might not be worth giving in most years. It is no mean feat to restructure a work of art in a different kind of time and space without compromising it. Julie Taymor managed to do this brilliantly with Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" (1999), as did Carlos Saura with Bizet's opera "Carmen" (1983) and Roger Vadim with Jean-Claude Forest's comic strip "Barbarella" (1968). Now 2001 has a successful transfer to which I would happily award this Oscar: John Cameron Mitchell's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

Mr. Mitchell co-wrote, directed and stars in the film re-creation of his off-Broadway play of the same name. But here he opens it up with flashbacks, fantasy musical numbers and animation interludes. The movie takes the form of a comic voyage of discovery. The hero, Hedwig (Mr. Mitchell), "an internationally ignored" transvestite musician, is in search of his "missing part." In this case, the artist's trauma is literal as well as metaphoric. The surgeon botched Hedwig's sex-change operation, accidentally leaving behind an "angry" inch of flesh that makes it impossible, except in his music, for Hedwig to realize his transsexual fantasies. His rock band, appropriately called "The Angry Inch," acts like a Greek chorus, commenting on the action.

What makes this unlikely quest so utterly amusing is that it spoofs the pseudo-Freudian concept, found in many Hollywood films such as "Lust for Life," "Immortal Beloved" and "The Music Lover," that great art proceeds from great pain. Hedwig's odyssey takes him from Communist East Germany, through seedy trailer parks and strip malls in middle America, to New York City. While the level of social satire does not rise to that of Barry Humphries' ingenious creation Dame Edna -- but, then, what does? -- it is hysterically funny. Each juncture in the trip is brilliantly reinforced by the neo-punk music of Stephen Trask, who collaborated with Mr. Mitchell in both the play and film. This extraordinary flight from the humdrum is not to be missed.

"Jurassic Park III," on the other hand, exemplifies how Hollywood can stomp a brilliant concept beyond recognition -- for the best of reasons: tie-ins with toy makers, theme-park owners and fast-food merchandisers, who, in turn, provide vast infusions of advertising for the film concept they have bought in to.

The concept of Michael Crichton's book "Jurassic Park," which spawned the film trilogy, is that unanticipated consequences proceed from the best-intentioned scientific research. The latest installment in the Steven Spielberg-Universal dino-franchise, directed by Joe Johnston, replaces that original concept with the "Jack and the Beanstalk" fairy tale. To wit, a young scientist, Billy (Alessandro Nivola), steals the giant's eggs from his lair. Only, in this version, the giant is a dinosaur, and his lair is what remains of Jurassic Park II on some Pacific island. Both Billy and the giant dinosaur have their respective support groups. Billy's support group, all of whom are signature characters in the Spielberg-Universal saurian enterprise, includes a daring young boy, Eric (Trevor Morgan), his parents (William H. Macy and Tea Leoni), whose splitting marriage must be repaired during the chase, and a wise paleontologist, Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), who knows his way around big lizards. The dinosaur's support group is other dinosaurs.

In "JP-III," these are not just big, cold-blooded beasts. They are smart monsters, much smarter in fact than humans. This is not so far-fetched. Why shouldn't there be high-IQ beasts? After all, much of how we're accustomed to think Jurassic Period dinosaurs looked is pure conjecture. The realistic pivtures are pure dino-fraud. For all we can tell from fossil fragments they could have been polka-dotted, and swished rather than stomped when they walked. So, in "JP-III," the pursuing dinosaurs are not only intelligent enough to converse with one another -- one even uses a cellphone -- they are also skilled at maintaining social relationships.

For his part, Mr. Johnston is smart enough to move the action at a mercifully quick pace, without spattering the screen with excessive blood or body parts. And he makes the escape as exciting as "Jack and the Beanstalk" can get for young audiences. Since I don't want to give away the fully predictable ending, suffice it to say that, despite the incessant roar of subwoofers, the cerebral dinosaurs turn out to be as cuddly as many of Mr. Spielberg's other infrahumans. And, I predict, they will have a great future in Universal's theme parks and at Toys "R" Us.

'America's Sweethearts'

There are only human monsters in "America's Sweethearts," but they are mostly cuddly, too, although harder to merchandise as dolls. The concept here is a bit like the Land O'Lakes butter logo, in which the Indian maiden holds a box of butter showing an Indian maiden holding a box of butter, and so on forever. In "America's Sweethearts," a Hollywood studio is the equivalent of the Indian maiden, a studio obsessed with the manipulation of its audience makes a movie about a studio obsessed with the manipulation of its audience, and so on forever

. "America's Sweethearts" is a comedy directed by Joe Roth, the former head of Disney Studios. Its highly intriguing premise is that the success of a very expensive Hollywood film depends on the studio's ability to fraudulently manipulate the entertainment media. The corollary of the premise is that the entertainment media are willing partners in this fraud on the public. Not only is Mr. Roth himself presumably knowledgeable about this subject, but his distributor, Sony, recently demonstrated its own expertise in this area by inventing imaginary critics to supply quotes for its film ads.

In "America's Sweethearts," the studio head (Stanley Tucci) needs to divert the media's attention away from an $86 million film that he thinks is a turkey. The idea his PR man (Billy Crystal) comes up with is to take members of the film press on a junket and focus their attention on the personal lives of the film's stars, Gwen Harrison (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Eddie Thomas (John Cusack), a married but bitterly estranged couple. To decoy the journalists away from the film itself, the PR man orchestrates a fake romantic reconciliation between the neurotic Eddie and the abrasive Gwen. In "reality," Eddie falls in love with Gwen's sister/assistant, Kiki (Julia Roberts).

Mr. Roth comes close to blending these elements into a successful screwball comedy a la Preston Sturges. He certainly demonstrates great directorial skill in pacing the gags -- as when Gwen's Doberman eats her window-washer -- and he squeezes funny bits out of most of the well-cast bit players. Squeezing a versatile performance out of the film's linchpin, Julia Roberts, is another matter. For the story to hold together, Ms. Roberts must be not only cute (which she always is) but also neurotically funny enough to steal away her sister's husband while retaining the viewer's affection.

To date, the only director who has extracted such a versatile cute-neurotic performance out of Ms. Roberts is Woody Allen in "Everyone Says I Love You." (He paid her only a fraction of what she earned in this film, demonstrating yet again the inverse relation between performance and compensation.) Mr. Roth, unable to achieve this feat, is left missing a crucial screwball heroine. Without her, the comedy wobbles out of kilter around the prosaic idea of a hero preferring a cuter (and nicer) heroine to his wife. Nevertheless, "America's Sweethearts" is amusing enough, especially with its uniquely credible premise of a media fraud, to recommend.

'Ghost World' In case you've seen enough of solipsistic Hollywood frauds, Terry Zwigoff, who directed the documentary "Crumb," provides an alternative universe. The super-cool, if sociopathic, characters he humanizes from Daniel Clowes cult comics toy with conventional alliances -- soul mates, room mates, sex mates--but lack the urge to merge. Instead, the heroes, Enid (Thora Birch), Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) and Seymour, (Steve Buscemi), are fated to be eternal outsiders. Their vision, and epiphanies, provide a supremely fascinating film.


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