CINEMA:More than a degree of chaos

A FILM about the death of the imagination was always likely to have a hard time finding an audience imaginative enough to want to watch it. That has been the ironic fate of Six Degrees of Separation (15), Fred Schepisi's adap- tation of John Guare's hit stage play, which opened (and closed) 18 months ago in America, and only now limps into release here, in time for June's black hole of cinema distribution. Even for those who get to see the film,there are grounds for being put off. As the early dialogue bows and scrapes before you, as if it was still on stage, you may wish to walk out. But stay - there is method in this mannerism. The movie is wordy, stagey and chaotic. But its subjects are words, staginess and chaos.

Guare's plot is ripped from recent headlines. The film tells the true story of how a young black man (Will Smith) conned wealthy Manhattan couples into believing he was the son of Sidney Poitier. In the opening scene, Smith staggers into the apartment of an art dealer (Donald Sutherland) and his wife (Stockard Channing) as they entertain a prospective investor from South Africa (Ian McKellen). Blood is pouring from Smith's shirt and he claims to have been mugged. He says he recognises a double-sided Kandinsky painting, which sits centrally on an easel, having heard the couple's children talk about it at Harvard. Something in his smooth sociability reaches out to his rich victims' loneliness. It may be they live so high above Central Park that it is hard for them to connect with anything.

E M Forster's "only connect" might be the boy's motto. And there is something Forsterian about him: he turns out to be a gay outsider whose most desperate desire is to belong. But his text is, in fact, J D Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. He claims he is writing a thesis on it, examining why it has become a manifesto of hatred for assassins such as John Lennon's killer, Mark Chapman. He concludes that the book, with its emphasis on universal "phoniness", exemplifies the malaise of our age: paralysis. He is an evangelist for imagination, which, he argues, is not an escapist indulgence but how humans connect.

Guare wittily weaves this theme into his social satire. His stylised dialogue shows how his upper-crust characters are unable to reach out to one another because they are trapped in cliche. Sutherland is forever using the same phrases to tell how the impostor might have murdered him: "We could have been killed - throats slashed." The film is a series of flashbacks, the story told by the victims to their friends and police. At first this seems unnecessarily arch, but it comes to suggest the way experience is constantly being reduced to anecdote. These gilded lives are ossified in their complacency and control. It is Paul, with his free and deceitful spirit, whom the film endorses. He and his victims are like the two sides of the Kandinsky, which depict, in different styles, chaos and control. The movie finds more truth in Paul's randomness.

Lest the film sound forbiddingly theoretical, it should be said that it works as social comedy (although occasionally a little glib), and, ultimately, melodrama. Sutherland carries off another silver-haired reactionary with great aplomb, and Channing received an Oscar nomination for her suave narcissist. But the star is Smith, who is equally convincing as the elegant, unfrightening charla- tan (the sort of black man these people regard as an honorary white, rather like O J Simpson before the scandal), and as the rough boy from the 'hood who was converted into a prince by a besotted Henry Higgins-figure. Schepisi has adapted a play which seemed to me on stage to be diffuse and self-indulgent, with wonderful pith and clarity.

The opening titles in Kiss of Death (18) are written in a stylish, backward- sloping script which matches the feel of the film itself - a sleek thriller which leans heavily towards Hollywood's past, especially film noir (it's a loose remake of Henry Hathaway's 1947 film of the same name.) The story is the old one about the ex-con (David Caruso) who wants to go straight but is lured into 90 minutes more danger. This time it's the police doing the bidding, getting Caruso to turn in the local Mr Big (Nicolas Cage) in exchange for his freedom. This gives Caruso, taking his first starring film role after NYPD Blue, ample opportunity for exercising his (only?) trademark facial expression - a semi-glare of bruised stoicism.

If you didn't know the movie was written by Richard Price (who also wrote Night and the City, Sea of Love and Mad Dog and Glory), you might guess after the first few lines. It's an exemplary opening, plunging us into the plot. But there's also a phoney demotic swagger in the dialogue that draws attention to itself. Likewise, Price writes some great scenes and characters - but a little too self- consciously. He researches exhaustively (here we are in the demi-monde of car thieves), but he never seems sure whether he wants to be realistic or stylised. There is a scene in which Cage's vicious body-builder exercises by lifting his girlfriend 40 times in the air. A nice conceit - using a dumb blonde for a dumbbell - but a world away from the realism of the auto world. Price is a technical master of neo-noir, but he substitutes cynicism for soul.

There have already been suggestions that this is the role in which Cage becomes a great actor. I am not convinced. If Cage is great, it is as a romantic comedian. Here he has tautened that laid-back drawl and developed his upper body so that the muscles bulge exuberantly. But it takes more than a snarl and a work-out to become Robert De Niro. Cage never really surprises us - or scares us, as Richard Widmark did in the original, pushing an old lady in a wheelchair down the stairs. It's still a beautifully observed performance, particularly in the slow, hyper-relaxed, muscle- bound gait, which makes him look like King Kong walking through space. And Cage benefits from Price's best writing. Like all bullies, his thug has a self-righteous, sentimental streak as wide as his biceps.

Cinema details: see Review, page 82.

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