FILM / Riding high on a pratfall
Sunday 04 September 1994
Welcome to the world of the Coen brothers. Not so much a world, in fact, as a parallel universe, made up of scenes from Hollywood classics, smart lines and brilliant set-pieces, such as the one above - all seemingly auditioning for reality. This time the bosses come out of Frank Capra, the hero (Tim Robbins's Norville Barnes) is from Preston Sturges, and the furnishings are art deco. Barnes is the postroom boy from a small town, who in Hollywood Dream fashion, is made chairman of the board in succession to Hudsucker (it's all a scheme of the Machiavellian Paul Newman to deflate the company's share price). By an inventive twist, Norville's idiocy proves to be just what's needed and the company rides high. The press becomes interested, and then we're into a new film, full of fast-talking, hard-bitten hacks - Howard Hawks's His Girl Friday, to be precise.
The Coens have complained that critics were partly responsible for the film's failure in America, by overstressing its film-buffery. But you don't have to be familiar with any of the directors mentioned above to be disappointed. If you were watching your first film you would realise Tim Robbins is miscast. The giant gangling frame and menacing brow don't belong to a little man battling against the system. Robbins is game, pratfalling energetically, but when he first answers the telephone, in his bowling-alley- sized office with a limply unfunny attempt at hoarse panic, you can't help wondering what
comic mayhem Tom Hanks would have made of it. Maybe in the future some computer will be able to swap Hanks's Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities, a role made for Robbins but too harsh for Hanks, with Robbins's Norville Barnes and solve two miscasting errors at a stroke.
Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the journalist who poses as a secretary to get the gen on Norville. Her performance is extraordinary - highly accomplished, yet dead. It's a minutely observed impersonation of Katharine Hepburn, with the same shriek of sophistication, chattering 10 to the dozen, and the same sulky pout. But beyond the mannerisms it is hard to make out a character, as if the act of imitation had drained all her interpretive energy. You keep expecting this harridan to come to life with a burst of comic business, to reveal the fiery passions behind the frosty facade, but throughout she remains strangely joyless.
The same could be said of the film as a whole. Whereas Capra backed his underdogs with manic - if misguided - fervour, the Coens are icily distanced. They are better at the mechanics of film-making than the human side. There is a wonderful visual gag early on when Norville, yet to rise to power, is struggling to place letters in their correct pigeon-holes. An old retainer joins him and starts to throw the letters into their holes, at lightning speed, like a human sorting machine. Maybe the reason the joke works so well is that it is entirely mechanical. When they are working with characters the Coens can become too imprecise for the gags to stick. Their best jokes are visual or verbal, where they require only craft, not insight.
This is the brothers' fifth film and their parodic style is beginning to seem something of a dead end. Their films are all about the illusion of content - like phantom pregnancies. They might benefit from writing for other directors. It would force them to think through the ideas they too often toss away. As it is, The Hudsucker Proxy will make for a pleasurable but frustrating night out. It is not all down after Hudsucker's jump. But nothing in the film is as exhilarating as his leaving of it.
What is the greatest explosion in movie history? There will be votes for the car going up in flames in Antonioni's Zabriskie Point, or, more recently, for the Guildford pub bomb, devastatingly sudden and loud, in In the Name of the Father. But I would choose the car bomb that kills Michael Corleone's Sicilian first wife in The Godfather. It is the moment that moulded Michael, blasting away his innocence, and so poignantly built up to, with a cameo of the couple's perfect love. By contrast the explosions in Blown Away (15) are just loud bangs. A whole division of Jeff Bridges' colleagues in the Boston bomb- disposal squad are killed before they are characterised. We need to know what's at stake to feel the force of a blast.
For all that, and one or two plot confusions, Blown Away is a reasonably lively thriller, cynically willing to ratchet up the suspense by the crudest means (usually suggesting a place has been rigged to explode and then getting Bridges' family to walk around it). Tommy Lee Jones plays an Irish terrorist, escaped from prison, now intent on a personal duel with Bridges - there are echoes of the vengeance theme in Cape Fear and the duets of death in In the Line of Fire. Bridges is as dependable as ever as the cool family man (his father, Lloyd, plays his father-figure), joking even when the bombs are ticking - bonhomie under pressure. Tommy Lee Jones is no more plausible an Irishman than James Mason was in Odd Man Out and overindulges his improvisation, with too much maniac ranting. His bombs look as if they'd been designed by Heath Robinson. But nothing in the film is very plausible.
We spend so much time berating films for irresponsibility that it's easy to forget just how dull responsible films can be. Take When a Man Loves a Woman (15), which arrives garlanded with testimonials from organisations that treat alcoholism. Meg Ryan plays a woman who slips into addiction; Andy Garcia is her husband, who has problems dealing with her once she has dried out. The film is intelligent and sincere, but also schematic - you can sense the points being ticked off. As movies about alcoholism go, this one is too sober. There's little sense of the allure of drink, of how, as Ray Milland puts it in The Lost Weekend, 'it tosses the sandbags away'.
Still, Ryan is good, slightly raddled, and feisty and excitable, with an obvious wild streak. Andy Garcia is less convincing as her anguished husband (it's not the anguish that's the problem, he just doesn't seem like a husband). He also has a lot of scenes with the regulation cute kids. The film gets more sentimental as it goes on, beyond rescue even by a delicate score by Zbigniew Preisner (Kieslowski's composer). By the end, you may need a stiff drink.
The Slingshot (15) is a comedy about a 12-year-old boy growing up in 1920s Stockholm, which will delight fans of the similar My Life As a Dog. It's full of coy, adolescent humour (like the boy looking up a girl's skirt with a torch). More diverting than sidesplitting.
Bosna] (no cert), now at London's ICA, is a French documentary about Bosnia, its history and horrific present. There are scenes and accounts of appalling carnage and brutality, and a commentary from Bernard-Henri Levy, penned in a concentrated acid that will burn away all indifference.
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