FILM / Crashing about in Wayne's joyless world

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The Independent Culture
WAYNE WANG'S version of The Joy Luck Club (15) tells us that fidelity can be a vice - and it should know. Amy Tan's novel was about women stifled by loyalty. Wang's film is stifled by devotion to Tan. Tan interwove eight lives - those of four Chinese women emigrants to San Francisco and their daughters - hopping in and out of their thoughts and memories, between California and China, taking the century as her canvas. She moved her characters as deftly as they handled their mah-jong tiles at the gossipy get-togethers of the title. The film crashes through its moves with a novice's ham-fistedness.

Tan wrote an epic of empathy. To match her mind-reading, Wang resorts everywhere to voice-overs. If you found Joanne Woodward's narration in The Age of Innocence off-putting, you ain't heard nothing yet. Wang's narrators spell out even things we can see for ourselves. In a flashback to China, one of the older women, then aged 15, is given in arranged marriage to a plump-cheeked boy. They sleep side by side - chastely. We see him biting his fingernails, as she removes her shift - a boy beside a woman. Still we're not spared a voice- over telling us they slept 'just like a brother and sister'. Wang is constantly, superfluously underlining, contemptuous of the audience's ability to understand on its own. He handles the flashbacks with laughable crudeness, forever cutting to pairs of dreamy eyes looking out into the distance.

The lumbering adaptation makes the stories feel schematic. It now seems over-neat that the mother who was locked into a loveless marriage in China should have a daughter with the same fate (married to a man who seeks to run their union like a public company, with a ledger marking their individual outgoings). But that's because the film, in cleaving to the novel's storyline, has flattened out its nuances, smoothing over Tan's rich psychological details, her exploration of obedience and 'spirit'. In the film, we hardly get to know a single character; and some of them, such as the rich white playboy whom one of the daughters marries, who switches between scenes from bland affection to callous indifference, are little more than caricatures. The novel's characters were both particular and universal. It tackled parental pride and filial embarrassment in a way the film barely touches on.

Wang's spoon-feeding makes the film oddly relaxing, without the hard tug of drama to stir us. It's best watched as a pageant of exotic tableaux, especially the Chinese scenes, which are often draped in rich silks, and where even the mass movements of peasants are mistily romanticised. This soft focus is matched in Wang's direction - a come-down from his offbeat work on Chan is Missing and Dim Sum - which allows his actresses to slip into melodrama, grotesquely overemphasising their narrations. With luck you'll avoid the whole joyless farrago.

My Life (12) is another weepie with more jerks in it than tears. Michael Keaton plays Bob Jones, a Los Angeles PR man - hardly the world's most sympathetic species - struck down by cancer and given months to live, while his wife (Nicole Kidman) expects their first child. To leave his offspring a memento, Bob starts recording his life on a camcorder (a shamelessly touted Sony, this being a Sony picture). We see him imparting his wisdom on everything from music to car mechanics, and Keaton catches well the sort of tough, self-made man who would delight in coaching his kid. He hires a director to record his colleagues' reminiscences, which range from self-serving flattery - 'He's very compassionate' - to unsettling frankness: 'The truth is he's really a product of his own PR.'

It's a promising opening, with Nicole Kidman glowering as the wife whose stoicism can't hide her resentment at having her life upturned. But soon the film gets bogged down in Bob's struggle to resolve his life before it's over: sessions of hokey mysticism ('Do you want to carry so much pain into your next life?') with a spiritual healer (Haing S Ngor), which seem to be there to give the picture 'depth'; rows with the family that Bob (ne Ivanovic) escaped from in Detroit; and then the mandatory 'I love you' moments. Before long, shamefacedly, I was willing Bob to get the agony over for all of us.

Petain (12) provides a contrasting footnote to Schindler's List: the story of a man as much a moral pygmy as Schindler was a giant. Jacques Dufilho plays Marshal Petain, presiding over the French collaborationist government during the war: a doddery old man with a bristling white moustache and timorously darting dark eyes. One of the film's problems is that it condemns Petain from the start. The Marshal is spared no indignity: exposed as ludicrously vain (harping on his literary prowess as a member of the Academy) and a furtive womaniser, as well as historically mistaken and a coward. Dufilho's Petain looks like a Gallic Alf Garnett, and holds similar views, condemning the Jewish influence as 'pernicious and putrefying'.

Sometimes the pudding is over-egged, as when his wife claims he'd already retired in 1914 (he defended Verdun in 1916, and restored order in Morocco in 1925). The film would have been a good deal more interesting if it had deigned to explore the misguided idealism, or nexus of character defects, that turned a nation's hero into its villain. As it is it feels more like a self-satisfied act of expiation than an attempt to grapple with the French past. It's still strangely, if slowly, absorbing, in its careful historical recreation and responsible rendering of Nazi atrocities, and in its note of darkest-hour comedy.

In his directorial debut On Deadly Ground (18), Steven Seagal plays his usual type. He's an ex-CIA warrior so top secret he doesn't show up on the files, so tough it would take a UN task force just to scratch him - the kind of guy, someone says, 'who would swallow a gallon of petrol just so he could piss in your campfire'. This is Die Hard in the Alaskan oilfields, and Seagal's job is to thwart evil oil magnate Michael Caine (providing his usual touch of class) from wreaking environmental havoc. The film is a hectic mix of sermons on toxic waste and Innuit folklore, bone- crushing violence and volcanic explosions. While Seagal winds things up with a Green Party Political Broadcast, you wonder how much environmental damage the film's own mayhem must have caused.