CINEMA / Arranged marriage: the unfunny truth

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The Independent Culture
WHOOPI GOLDBERG is Hollywood's highest-paid female star, and for the dross she has to play she deserves every cent. Her latest, Made in America (12), is a harmless, but mainly mirthless, comedy, that seems not so much made in heaven as in committee. We first see Whoopi careering through the Californian traffic on her bicycle, draped in what looks like a mauve carpet. She is mainly cast these days for her chuckling wholesomeness, and here she hangs out in her Africana shop, 'bonding' with her sparky daughter (Nia Long), and cocking a snook at patronising whites. She's a single earth mother.

The emphasis is on single. Her husband died some years ago, before the couple could conceive a child. The daughter is the result of artificial insemination. The rest of the plot writes itself. The daughter, a gifted scientist with knock-out charm, discovers her real father, who turns out to be Ted Danson. Ted Danson? But he's white] I know, hilarious, isn't it? Well, not exactly, but Danson at least is allowed some lese-majeste, in contrast to the carefully stereotyped, model blacks. He plays a blow-dried car salesman - a cowboy with a gold cravat and tassled Rawhide jacket. He lives in a condo that looks like a refuse depository for Domino's Pizza, with an airhead, aerobics-obsessed blonde. It's as if they've pumped up the narcissism of Danson's Sam in Cheers and squeezed out everything else.

When Ted acts with Whoopi - now his real-life partner - there's chemistry, but standard lab stuff rather than fireworks. These two knowing, rather flawed characters both seem bigger than the film. When they're interrupted while smooching, and Ted stands up with his shirt hanging out of his flies, the laugh is lessened by the thought that it didn't require a comedian of Danson's slyness to carry it off. The same goes for a succession of sperm gags that clobber home the point that these shy first-daters are biologically intimate already. Only Will Smith, as the daughter's best mate, Tea Cake Smith, seems in his element, with some inspired physical mimicry and jiving verbals.

You can see the commercial attraction of laughing over the cultural divide: two audiences wooed in one. But, as in the recent British film Leon the Pig Farmer, which pursued the same plot in returning a London Jew to his Northern roots, the audience is molly-coddled when it needs needling. By fearing to offend, or even question, the film raises as few laughs as heckles. The one moment of comic bliss comes from the bimbo - a safe target. Leaving Danson's apartment, with exercise bicycle and biceped beau, she delivers a Mills & Boon farewell, oblivious to Ted's crush on Goldberg. Her: 'Don't hate me. I want you just to remember the good times. The way we were.' Him: 'OK, honey.' It's a moment full of the heady heartlessness of Cheers: a spicy oasis in a marshmallow dessert.

Champions (PG) starts with a miss - a child ice-hockey player flipping a puck against a post - but ends up close to a hit. There's nothing new, but if you're 13 and haven't seen it before it may be thrilling. Emilio Estevez plays the child who fluffed that crucial opening shot, grown up into a lawyer who misses nothing except compassion and decency (his numberplate reads: JUST WIN). His macho overcompensation for that moment of childhood frailty includes drinking and driving. After another offence his boss suggests community service coaching kids ice hockey might temper his thrust. His team, The Mighty Ducks (the film's US title), make England's cricketers look a formidable fighting unit, and it's up to Emilio to turn them round. The new title gives the game away, but it wasn't too hard to call.

The charm lies in fairy-tale transformations: Estevez, who glides gracefully through the film except when skating, turns from yuppie to youth worker, and from cheat to free spirit; his rival coach and boyhood mentor (played by veteran villain Lane Smith), from jowly complacency to crestfallen fury; the kids from Ducks to swans. The director, Stephen Herek, doesn't take it too seriously, with touches such as the blunderbuss shooter who sends the goal-net flying. Hockey itself, too swift for television, excites on the big screen through harum-scarum editing.

A Far Off Place (PG), from Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment and Disney, is also aimed at kids, though not exactly child's play. It conflates two Laurens van der Post stories, and hoary adventure with contemporary eco-themes - bounty-hunting meets Save the Elephant. An ill-matched American girl and boy (she native, in khaki; he a blazered tourist) are forced to trek the Kalahari desert, guided by a wind-following bushman, after their parents are killed by poachers (to not quite enough filial trauma). It's not clear why they opt for this labour of Hercules, when they might have sought assistance from the local good-guy game-hunter, Maximilian Schell. Perhaps they wanted a scenic route. The film is a coffee-table book of stunning vistas: orangey dusks, golden dawns, blazing white days; stars speckling inky skies; smooth caramel sands stretching forever.

Debutant director Mikael Salomon shot Spielberg's equally lush Always, and you're reminded of another photographer's directorial debut: the film feels like a bowdlerisation of Nicolas Roeg's first solo work, the Australian outback tale Walkabout. The dangerous unspoken love between Roeg's adolescent girl and aborigine has turned into an American teen affair. Roeg's questioning of 'civilisation' has become a Disney endorsement, with a few New Age strings attached. The film - disjointed and overpowered by a pounding score - is not quite a trek across the desert, but a barren enough slog.

The same can be said of Apres l'Amour (15), yet another French film about adultery, and almost a parody of the genre - emotions unbuttoned in chic apartments and yearning strings on the soundtrack. Isabelle Huppert is the reflective heroine, a writer trying to unravel, for us, and herself, the web of her affections. She has two lovers - both married, of course - a Bohemian guitarist (Hippolyte Girardot) and a cold fish (Bernard Giraudeau) who works as an architect when not ruining women's lives with cultivated inscrutability. What we have is a love pentagon, constantly on the brink of hurling this genteel world into nuclear war. But all we get are skirmishes across Europe, from Pompeii to Paris, the desultoriness of sexual jealousy, and the pain and deception of adultery without the joy.

Just space for a warm welcome back to George Sluizer's chilling 1988 original of The Vanishing (18), the silky masterpiece out of which Sluizer made a pig's ear in Hollywood. Shudder again at the bonhomous abductor; the edgy loveplay of his victims, and their sheer bad luck; the photography's poignant, almost documentary, realism; and the script's savage wit and shattering pay-off.

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