THERE IS something curiously English about Nine Months (PG), Hugh Grant's first American movie. It's not just that Grant's haughty Home Counties accent has been relocated to a San Francisco paediatric practice without a word of explanation from the script. Nor is it the comedy's strained reliance on bodily functions and verbal mishaps. It is more a general reek of desperation, redolent of musty music-hall routines or stale sit-coms. The movie is importunate in its desire to make us laugh: full of frantic slapstick, over-the-top stunts and enough facial contortions to keep the clowns of Billy Smart's Circus goonishly satisfied for months. Grant and his co-star, Julianne Moore, seldom stop smiling. We get to know their teeth better than their characters. It is stiff-upper- lip comedy, putting a brave, and bright, face on a dismal script.
The gag is that Grant plays a child shrink who detests kids. But it is typical of the movie's opportunistic manner that after a flat therapy sketch with a truculent boy, Grant's profession is never mentioned again. We open on Grant and girlfriend Moore drinking white wine on a beach - happier than they'll be for the next 90 minutes. She coyly suggests an addition to their family; he argues that the two of them, together with his red Ferrari, make an unimprovable trio. It would be a shock after this if she didn't get pregnant, and there are no surprises in director Chris Columbus's script (adapted from a French original). Freaked by the thought of fatherhood, Grant descends into such selfishness that Moore leaves him to live with baby-holics Tom Arnold and Joan Cusack. This crude couple first stomped on when their child's kite crowned Grant on the beach - a mournful augury of the movie's comic finesse.
There has been so much speculation on the career consequences of Grant's personal problems that small matters such as his performances have been deemed hardly relevant. Yet his acting in Nine Months suggests his Hollywood fortunes could go down on him as swiftly as Divine Brown. He tries so hard to be funny that he forgets to be a person. Nothing feels natural or organic; much is second-hand. When he throws off his clothes, in a flurry of limbs, about to make love for the first time in weeks, you remember John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda and the surge of repressed brio that made his striptease hilarious rather than forced. When he softens and tries some nannying, Grant does an abortive Joyce Grenfell impersonation. Throughout, he grimaces and stammers with the restlessness of a hyperactive child. He is more grotesque than droll.
Both Grant and Moore can plead miscasting. This type of romantic comedy requires an innocence bordering on naivety which may be outside the range of two such sophisticated performers. Moore made her name in Robert Altman's Short Cuts and with her luminously intelligent Yelena in Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street. She is a subtler actress than Meg Ryan, but maybe Ryan's cutesy emotionalism was needed here. Moore and Grant seem faintly embarrassed at their unreconstructed material. Often the film descends into knockabout (as when Grant Rollerblades out of control through the city), and such cartoonery undermines any attempts at characterisation. The film's theme - men's fear of women and of commitment - is overstated and out of date. Grant nearly has a nervous breakdown at the thought of fatherhood. After years of satires on new men, it's weird and wearisome to be back with the old boys.
It takes true comic talent to breathe laughter into such tripe, and Robin Williams has a film-stealing scene as a malapropistic and highly emotional Russian obstetrician. Another plus is Jeff Goldblum's performance as a lizard-like womaniser, the sort of creature Grant's character was on course to become, before the catharsis of the movie. It reminds you of the hip, funny cameo that kick-started Goldblum's career in Annie Hall. Little else in the film has that sort of polish. Nine Months needed a lot longer gestation.
Hugh Grant, and any other aspirant light comedian, could learn from the Italian actor, Massimo Troisi, who died a few months after his last film, Il Postino (U) was completed. Troisi plays the title role, a temporary postman on a remote Italian island, hired to deliver mail to the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret), exiled there in 1952. (The incident is fictional; Neruda spent his exile closer to home.) As clipped civility makes way for more expansive chat, a touching, rather lop-sided relationship develops between the great poet and the humble postman. It is hard to imagine another actor playing simplicity as well as Troisi - without a trace of condescension. A constant nervous fidget, fingering his cap for security, he speaks in a slur of deference and uncertainty. Yet he gives this near-simpleton a purity of spirit that overrides intellect.
Il Postino has been dismissed by some as a piece of sentimental whimsy. They are missing a lot, as the film is much deeper than its surface charm. It's a study of the relationship of words to the world, nothing less than a vindication of poetry. The postman puzzles over Neruda's metaphors and goes on to ask whether "the whole world is the metaphor for something else". Later, when he falls in love with a girl tellingly named Beatrice, he steals some of the poet's images to woo her. In a benign reversal of the Cyrano scenario, the optimistic moral is that a simple man can find, and refine, his feelings through the words of a great poet. Still, the girl's mother wails that "he's heated her up like an oven with his metaphors". A valid point about the sorcery of poetry, but one answered by the film's ending. The postman confesses that he never realised how beautiful his island was until he made a tape of its sounds for Neruda, who has returned to Chile. The message of the film is that in recording the world we discover it.
The British film-maker Michael Radford (who made Another Time, Another Place and the underrated 1984) directs with great charm and control. Philippe Noiret is also fine as Neruda (his lines are spoken by an Italian actor), displaying the sort of kindness that is pragmatic, free of gush or effusiveness, and the quality the poet G S Fraser described on meeting the real Neruda in the 1950s as a "fierce innocence". The film is a great triumph for Radford, a wonderful tribute to Neruda, and the perfect testimony to Massimo Troisi.
There is a scurrilous rumour going around that Amy Heckerling's Clueless (12) is an adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma. There is a vague plot resemblance: well-off, self-satisfied young woman seeks to arrange the affairs of herself, her widowed father and her friends. But the modern version, set in contemporary Beverly Hills, plays so fast and loose with its august original as to make the comparison worthless. Clueless is best viewed, and mildly enjoyed, as a satire on chic, 1990s American youth: their ignorance, their vanity, their preening fashion sense, their pretension, their affected speech ("As if!"), and, in case we didn't get it the first time, their ignorance again. It would be churlish to begrudge the script its good jokes. I enjoyed the heroine's puzzlement about reports of fighting in Bosnia even after the Middle East peace settlement. Nineteen-year-old Alicia Silverstone as the demure heroine, Cher, has the sweet, slightly puzzled look of a mind that has never been afflicted by anything so troubling as an idea. Donald Faison as her lawyer daddy resembles a member of OJ's defence team, and has some gruff cracks of his own - though he's a world away from Emma's amiable valetudinarian father, Mr Woodhouse. But Heckerling's gags are relentlessly small-minded. Clueless is petty; Austen universal.
Pierre William-Glenn's 23:58 pays homage to Stanley Kubrick's clinical heist movie, The Killing. A pair of ex-bikers stage a similar hold-up at the Le Mans 24-hours motorcycle race - hoping for a different outcome. The movie poses questions about fate and movie-making. It has a soulful, cineaste cop, and with its brooding, elegant photography captures the mood of Le Mans - its orange glow at night and bleak grey mornings, played out to the splutter and roar of engines. But Glenn has lost Kubrick's thrilling dramatic momentum. 23:58 feels listless.
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