A peach and a lemon

The director of Look Who's Talking has redeemed herself. Like, totally. So it's a shame the writer of Gremlins is going soft. By Adam Mars-Jones: NINE MONTHS Chris Columbus (12) CLUELESS Amy Heckerling (12)
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The Independent Culture
It's a strange week when a film from the writer of Gremlins can be knocked off the screen by one from the creator of Look Who's Talking (and who compounded the felony by going on to make Look Who's Talking Too). But then the Gremlins script, more than 10 years old now, still looks like Chris Columbus's only real achievement. Gremlins was about as gleeful and thoroughgoing an attack on Norman Rockwell-Frank Capra values as could be made in Hollywood, a film that dared to mock even Christmas. It gave the audience a not-exactly-flattering reflection of itself as gremlins at heart, mean-minded adolescents who only want to see stuff crash and burn.

Since then, Columbus has become alarmingly wholesome. It's like the revenge of Norman Rockwell, the return of the repressed Hallmark card. The director of the Home Alone films and Mrs Doubtfire is hardly recognisable as the creator of Gremlins, and now Nine Months continues the slide into fuzzy warmth. The film is based on a French original, yet there doesn't seem to be enough plot for one film, let alone two. A man who doesn't want children (he's a child psychiatrist), is traumatised when a failure of contraception leaves his girlfriend pregnant. Then he gets used to the idea. That's about it.

It's only because of Hugh Grant that the film has any interest at all. That's not to say that his mannerisms are not becoming dangerously over- exposed, and in Nine Months he has to do more than his share of silly stuff - he's so eager undressing for sex that he falls over his trousers, that kind of thing. But in an American context his body language is profoundly alien and fascinating.

Where American men make routinely aggressive eye contact, Grant has blinking skills. In place of the standard hunk grin, he supplies a facial ballet, the elaborate grimaces of shy charm. When he smiles, his mouth is as likely to turn down at the corners as up. He is transparently not at ease with his own body or in touch with his own emotions, and is equally transparently disturbed by the proximity of other people's physiques and feelings. In other words, he represents most of what American society strives to breed or train out of its men. People aren't allowed to grow up like Hugh Grant in the States, and when someone like him is abruptly imported, the shock is very great.

It was the same with Annie Hall. America had overdosed on co-ordination and assertiveness for so long that all it took was Diane Keaton with a few modest transgressions of conventional dress sense and some undisguised shyness, and department stores went crazy.

Nine Months, though, is no Annie Hall. The actors are mostly fine, notably Joan Cusack and Jeff Goldblum. Tom Arnold, admittedly, acts broadly, even for Tom Arnold, and Robin Williams has reached a point in his personal growth where even a cameo (he plays a Russian obstetrician who makes amusing mistakes with language) gives us rather too much of him.

After the plot has run its course, with an outstandingly icky speech from Grant, ("I'm in love with my child, and I'm totally in love with you for having him"), the writer-director has nowhere to go but comedy overdrive. So we have car chases on the way to the hospital and fist-fights and faintings in the delivery room; the orchestral chortlings on the soundtrack never give up. What does this have to do with parenthood? Nine Months manages to be patronising to both parents and non-parents, and nothing in it has the impact of the ultrasound images that we see at one point, the foetus a radiant blob, its rapid heart a palpitating puddle on the screen.

Meanwhile, Amy Heckerling's Clueless, about spoilt teenagers in Beverly Hills, totally redeems her criminal responsibility for Look Who's Talking. Like, totally (since this is a fresh take on the phenomenon of the Valley Girl). Cher (Alicia Silverstone) is 15, has a computer programme to help her select her outfit every day, and a mobile phone that rarely has a chance to cool down from her hand. She's learning to drive, but doesn't bother with parking because "everywhere you go has valet".

The school society in which she moves is none too bright, and Clueless starts off as a satire on American shallowness, a target so broad no one has ever missed it. A new arrival is much admired because she can do doodles freehand, without tracing. When someone has been concussed, Cher wants her to be asked a question, to test the injured girl's faculties. "What's seven times seven?" someone says, and Cher hisses frantically: "Stuff she knows."

But soon we realise that Cher is not only nice but clever. She may live in a world where Buyer's Remorse is a recognised ailment, but she tries to have a sense of the larger perspective. Her speech on the assigned topic of immigration from Haiti draws overmuch on her experiences of having a party gatecrashed, but her conclusion is impeccable: there's no RSVP on the Statue of Liberty. She corrects a snooty college-girl's quotation from Hamlet on the basis of the Mel Gibson film ("that Polonius guy said that"), which is particularly appropriate since her own language - as when she describes a teacher earning "minor ducats" - has its Shakespearian moments.

Clueless has a soft centre, barely disguised. The phrase in Cher's set for being a virgin may be "hymenally challenged" (the logic of the expression is not strict), but she is happy with her intactness. "You see how picky I am about my shoes," as she puts it, "and they only go on my feet." Even when she falls, and falls hard, she plans to wait.

The idea that a 15-year-old girl who dresses like jail-bait may be entirely unself-aware sexually, may be driving her nubile body on autopilot, is presented as reassuring, and is probably a good tactic in moralising Hollywood. But the issue isn't too far from the one raised by the recently controversial Calvin Klein advertising campaign. Is it OK to look at young people sexually because they are complicit? Or OK because they are not? Or not OK whatever their degree of conniving?

It's not quite clear what Amy Heckerling's opinion is, or even if she realises that she ought to have one if she's going to treat this material, however lightly. But otherwise Clueless is a highly satisfactory piece of work, as sweetly tart as the lemon that Cher reaches out through an upstairs window to pick, right off the tree, for her dad's tea tray.

n On release from tomorrow