CINEMA / Too many jokers in the pack

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THE SMILES in Richard Donner's humorous western Maverick (PG) are as broad as the sprawling plains and plateaus on which it takes place. Mel Gibson as Brett Maverick, poker-playing adventurer, gives us his goofiest gleam, the one that says he's frankly a little embarrassed at his own handsomeness. Jodie Foster, as the dubious 'Mrs' Annabelle Bransford, following and falling for Brett, glints conspiratorially, letting us in on her amusement at her own smartness. And the screenwriter, William Goldman, is as swift on the draw as Brett when it comes to gags. No danger of getting lost in this Wild West, since there's a signpost at every corner directing you to the next joke.

Why then are we in the stalls left as stonily unmoved as the Sierra mountains? A lot has to do with Goldman's script, which is well below the standard of his last sally West, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a quarter of a century ago. None of the characters is properly developed, and there's a feeling that everything is negotiable: plot, character, continuity - all could be bartered for a feeble joke. You may have thought you would never again be asked to laugh at the old running gag in which the heroine persistently gets the hero's name wrong. Think again. And if Goldman, in his sideline as a script surgeon, had come across a joke in which Gibson's hand gets jammed in a door, wouldn't he have cut it?

Maverick is the latest film to be derived from a television series. The television Maverick ran between 1957 and 1962 ; the timing is important, because the film is dated. The concept of injecting humour into the western, tweaking and modernising its time-honoured monochrome morality, is obsolete in an age in which the western no longer holds great cultural sway. Today's audiences may not see a western from one year to the next, and when they do, it is likely to be an attempt, such as Unforgiven, to take revisionism much further than Maverick's japes.

Nevertheless, there is potential in the Maverick character, the traditional 'gentle grafter' of late 19th- century mythology. Gibson's Maver ick is travelling to a lucrative, winner-takes-all poker game on a paddle-steamer. His journey involves a trek across the desert, and face-offs with brigands (including Alfred Molina), vipers, and Red Indians - there is a genuinely funny, if ahistorical, sequence, featuring a chief who is sick of being expected to play the noble savage.

Gibson's fans have made the film a hit (though not a huge one) in America. But to many, his performance may seem like one long smirk - far from the original Maverick, who was a well-drawn mix of caution and canniness. James Garner, who first played Brett (to be followed by three others, including Roger Moore), has a supporting role as Marshal Zane Cooper, underwritten like everybody else, floating in and out of the action. The craggy features, now heavier and jowlier, are set in a scowl. You wouldn't know that he was among the screen's most natural comics, with an unerring feel for a laugh line. Jodie Foster, for all her glittery, indulgent smiles, is miscast the other way in her first leading comic role: try as she may, she's too buttoned up for comedy or romance. You keep waiting for a spark of the unexpected, and all you get is an intelligent performance.

Like another Sixties TV series turned Nineties film, The Fugitive, Maverick was originally created by Roy Huggins. He once wrote a 'Ten-Point Guide to Happiness While Writing or Directing Maver ick', to be used by crews working on the programme. Donner's film breaks about eight of these commandments. There are small but significant fudges, like the fallacy that Maverick is a gambler (he's not, says Huggins, because in his hands 'poker is not a game of chance'). And then there is this plea: 'The cliche flourishes in the creative arts because the familiar gives a sense of comfort and security. Writers and directors of Maverick are requested to live dangerously.'

Maverick the movie is a monument to cliche. And it wouldn't know danger if it came up at 10 paces, pistols drawn. Even the photography is hackneyed, with a sumptuousness unsuited to what should be an easy, intimate tale of graft and guile. Goldman copies his own structure from Butch Cassidy, with the same sting in the tail and final freeze-frame. But without any real plot or character development, the big scenes seem opportunistic, reaching for impact that hasn't been earned. The jokes too are limply familiar. If Gibson is not having an attack of cold feet, Gibson and Foster are squabbling like Butch and Sundance. Goldman seems to think all comic characters have the mentality of five-year-olds. Or is that his view of the audience?

A mother's senescence leads to radical reassessments in the lives of her son and daughter in Ma Saison Preferee (15). Catherine Deneuve and Daniel Auteuil play the daughter and son, settled into professional success (she a lawyer, he a neurologist) when the failing health of mother (Marthe Villalonga) brings them together for the first time in three years, setting in motion events that will end Deneuve's marriage and lead her to move in with her brother in a strange sibling menage.

That is rather a curt summary of a film that is philosophically spacious and psychologically probing. There is a fair amount of talk and self-analysis, from which we get an inkling of the existential crises which grip the characters. Deneuve's character rues the fact that, like her father, she's never had the energy to act. Auteuil counters: 'Finding the energy to act is easy. Finding a meaning for your actions is the hard part.' This advances a step the argument of Sartre's 1948 stage play Les Mains Sales. Even if you resolve on a course of action - get your hands dirty - does doing so actually define you, as Sartre's hero argued? Auteuil suggests later that Deneuve has shirked the opportunities her beauty has offered her. The film asks how we reconcile our personalities not only with our actions, but also with our bodies.

When such issues are reflected on a younger generation, of children and lovers, they get hazier. Though we get to see Deneuve's own daughter, Chiara Mastroianni (by Marcello), playing her film daughter, adding an ironic extra layer to the drama. The acting all round is very fine. Auteuil, showing the inscrutable anguish we remember from last year's Un Coeur en Hiver, has a wonderful scene at Deneuve's Christmas dinner, edgily hemmed in by the cheerful politesse. Deneuve moves from listless resignation, her face riven with the lineaments of ungratified desire, to the stirrings of a new freedom. Best of all is Villalonga as the mother, maintaining a plaintive alertness amid encroaching senility. When she is taken to a home, she boasts to the staff about her children's jobs, as if flashing her credentials. Ma Saison Preferee is a film of sharp insights rather than developed arguments, but it is bleakly fascinating.

It is hard to find the heart to criticise Penny Marshall's Renaissance Man (12). Its heart is so obviously in the right place. But here goes. This tale of a teacher (Danny DeVito) getting drop-out soldiers to appreciate Hamlet is dramatically inert. We've seen a hundred times how art refreshes the parts square-bashing cannot reach. But please, Sir, do we have to sit through Danny DeVito lecturing us on what a simile is? I'm afraid so - there's even an extra period on the oxymoron. But the grunts are superb, authentic in their doltish apathy and believable in their burgeoning interest. And DeVito is a powerful performer. If his frantic overacting could be curbed by a strong director (definitely not himself), he might do something great.

Gypsy (U) is a decent new version of the 1959 musical, starring Bette Midler as the ambitious theatre mum. But there are problems in running together the fantasies of film and musical theatre. A musical's kinetic charge begs applause. When Midler sings 'I Had a Dream', it's a belter. But this show can't be stopped.

Not much room for The Beverly Hillbillies (PG), another TV-

derived comedy, about a family of five from Arkansas, who hit oil and take their new-found wealth to Los Angeles. But more than it deserves. It's crass, witless, and no doubt already spawning sequels.