FILM / Land of hoop and glory: White Men Can't Jump (15)Ron Shelton (US); Beauty and the Beast (U)Gary Trousdale / Kirk Wise (US); Spotswood (PG)Mark Joffe (Aus); Blue Ice (15)Russell Mulcahy (US); Freud Leaving Home (no cert)Susanne Bier (Swe)

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The Independent Culture
MANY A Hollywood screenwriter must have wondered how Ron Shelton managed to swing it, to make the cursed sports movie bankable again, in America anyway. The answer is this: Shelton writes sports comedies - Bull Durham (baseball) and White Men Can't Jump (basketball) - a species as rare as, well, white basketball stars. There's something about the genre that invites high moral seriousness, or, to put it differently, tedious, schoolmasterly stuff about the American Way, and playing the game, and team spirit, and the Little Team or Little Man (rarely Woman) who bucks the system.

Anyway White Men Can't Jump is not primarily about the sport, although the hugely enjoyable basketball sequences celebrate the players' fancy footwork and physical grace (look, no cuts: you get to see the stars actually executing some of the nifty passes and shooting the basket). The dialogue is pretty fleet too, and it doesn't much matter if you miss bits, as you certainly will, or if its meaning tantalisingly evades you. 'You can put a cat in the oven, but that don't make it a biscuit,' says Wesley Snipes near the end; if this isn't the very last word in urban slang, you feel it darn well should be. The players favour Oedipal insults, but rarely of the predictable kind: 'your momma is an astronaut,' jeers one to mysterious general outrage. Maybe it's the way you say them.

But the true story nestles in the psychological by-play. Woody Harrelson is a dorky, gawky white guy who hangs around LA's playgrounds waiting to win bets from big-bragging, showboating black players who assume he will be a push-over; Snipes is one of these who gets hustled by Harrelson, then teams up with him to scam the town together. Shelton's trademark, here as in his Bull Durham and his last film, Blaze, is a plot as baggy and shapeless as Harrelson's shorts. Over the opening credits run impressionistic shots of the colourful eccentrics peopling Venice Beach, among them Harrelson, who, as the film begins, sinks into a deep, sweet slumber: the film could be his dream. But the discursiveness is a strength as much as a weakness: the film never feels - like too many sports movies - as if it's juggernauting inexorably towards some trite moral epiphany.

Sometimes Shelton's benign vision is, well, a bit silly. One man goes to his car to fetch 'money' for a bet, and comes back with a stocking mask and gun (the convenience store owner, of course, recognises him at once and remonstrates good-humouredly). The film's vague attempt at building suspense concerns a brace of gangsters who are dunning Harrelson for a debt and who threaten him with Polaroids of previous victims, mounted in a glossy album as carefully as if they were treasured family snapshots (surprise, these villains turn out to be good eggs, too).

The film's point is that, far from being an arena for character-formation, the playground is a site of infantile regression: in it, men can be boys and evade adult responsibility. Harrelson and Snipes (both terrific, incidentally) have women with a slightly longer view, though in the case of Harrelson's - a parrot-voiced, vodka- sozzled ex-disco dancer from Brooklyn whose life ambition is to appear on the Jeopardy] game show - you feel these matters are relative. And (surprise again), you know that buddy- dom will always take priority in their men's lives.

Like the best human comedies, the film contains a potentially tragic subtext, wreathed in the running joke about the characters' congenital inability to understand each other, for all the badinage and verbal display, across the divides of race or gender. Harrelson, a white man, will never truly hear Hendrix's music, and, a white man, will never know how to listen to what his girlfriend really wants when she asks for water. But this is a light-hearted, fast-footed film, running, jumping, never standing still long enough to get maudlin.

The week's second ironic look at machismo comes from a more unexpected quarter, Disney's animation division, hitherto one of Hollywood's last bastions of antediluvian sexual politics. Beauty and the Beast is another of the fairy-tales for which the studio is famed, but definitely a revisionist version. The Beast is one of those Iron John types, virile and hairy, but painfully learning to get in touch with his real self; Belle, the heroine, is not picture-book pretty - she has an eyebrow with a habit of arching quizzically and an unruly strand of hair that will keep falling across her face. Instead of twittering 'Some day my prince will come', she keeps her nose in a book and the decisive ploy in the Beast's seduction is to show her his library; Gaston, the village dreamboat, is a swaggering action man (he gets the film's funniest song, boasting of his hunting exploits) who turns out to be a double-dyed villain. If political correctness is a turn-off, there's plenty more to commend this, from the animation (computer graphics make the Beast's castle look like a true Xanadu) to the sophisticated adult lyrics.

These movies both rode in on a wave of kudos from America; the pleasant surprise of the week was Spotswood, a low-budget comedy about an efficient time-and-motion expert (Anthony Hopkins) who tries to rationalise a ramshackle moccasin factory in rural Australia; the people are canny, friendly and incorrigibly workshy, with foreseeable results. It's a film full of sardonic Aussie humour, and Hopkins fleshes out a rather flat role with all his substantial authority.

The others may be given short shrift: Blue Ice belongs to that familiar genre, the bad British thriller, with Michael Caine playing a version of Harry Palmer depoliticised for the Nineties and Sean Young giving the non-performance of her career. Freud Leaving Home, a rather tedious mix of comedy and (mostly) self-regarding angst has been chosen to launch the Jewish Film Festival at the National Film Theatre on Wednesday, although the programme is certainly worth scrutinising for its more promising-looking events.

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