FILM / That shrinking feeling: Mr Jones and Color of Night

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The Independent Culture
Sometimes it seems that every Concorde setting off across the Atlantic carries with it a hopeful British film director, and every returning jumbo jet brings back a bruised and disappointed one in the economy section. Mike Figgis, though, whose new film Mr Jones (15) endured a considerable amount of mucking about from the studio on its way to our screens, shouldn't be too upset by his Hollywood period. Of his three American films, Internal Affairs, Liebestraum and now Mr Jones, it is actually the one he wrote himself, Liebestraum, that seems most stranded, neither quite personal nor commercial.

The distributors don't know what to do with Mr Jones even now, by turns stressing the film's authenticity ('Some 20 million Americans suffer from mood disorders . . .') and its romantic melodrama ('Everything That Makes Him Dangerous Makes Her Love Him Even More'). The film shares some of these confusions, but its virtue is the relatively unusual one of offering us a hero whose behaviour flows freely back and forth, until the plot closes in on him, between the compartments so reassuringly labelled normal and abnormal.

At bottom, the screenplay (by Eric Roth and Michael Cristofer) is a piece of soft dialectic out of the Equus stable, a rigged contest between reason and impulse with all the sensible money on impulse. From the moment we see psychiatrist Libbie Bowen (Lena Olin), we know there's something missing in her life. She oversleeps, she looks long and hard in the mirror, she even expects her cat to eat leftover Chinese takeaway.

Into her life comes a charmer who notices her air of fragility and the faint tarnish residue left by a recently removed wedding ring. He is Mr Jones (Richard Gere), diagnosed first as schizophrenic but then classified as 'bi-polar', which is trendy for manic depressive. He claims to be uni-polar, just manic. In any case, he says, it's not an illness, it's who he is. Her position is less clear: 'You're not a sick person, you're a person with a sickness.'

Gere was executive producer of the film, and has a grand old time with the main part. Particularly enjoyable is a hearing where the judge speaks with such patronising slowness that she seems to be heavily tranquilised, while Mr Jones, testifying to his own sanity, plays nightclub-entertainer games with the microphone, dropping his voice to a wheedling amplified whisper.

It's hard to see that Mr Jones, even as Figgis envisioned it, was ever going to be a contribution to human understanding exactly, but compared to most Hollywood product it takes the subject of mental illness seriously (90 per cent of psychology in the movies, from Spellbound to Silence of the Lambs, is only there to provide bizarre and unforeseeable motives for murder). Mr Jones sanitises rather than sensationalises, but even so there are uncomfortable moments that stick in the mind. Anne Bancroft as Libbie's chief of staff gives an austerely eloquent performance, spelling out the institution's policy as Evaluate, Medicate, Vacate, or bleakly murmuring 'Let's be optimistic' when a troubled young woman is released into the care of parents who are clearly part of the problem, if not most of it.

Mr Jones links mental illness with passion, but at least some of its scenes reject this idiot equation and make mental illness look more like an intense form of unhappiness. That isn't a breakthrough for a talented director, but it isn't a disaster either, and it's hard to see what more Figgis could have hoped to achieve.

Color of Night (18), Richard Rush's new film, is not going to add anything to its director's existing claims to fame: dismal apprentice biker movies involving early work from Jack Nicholson and the cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, plus The Stunt Man from 1980, a comedy with metaphysical pretensions and an influential gimmicky opening sequence, where a series of trivial accidents - the landscape operating like a pinball machine, amplifying rather than absorbing impacts - produced a fluke death.

The Stunt Man wasn't subtle, but it was certainly lively. Color of Night is like a 10th- generation Xerox of a Hitchcock film. Bruce Willis plays a therapist so traumatised by the suicide of a patient that he becomes colour-blind in one part of the spectrum. 'To deny red is to deny emotion,' as a colleague helpfully tells him, 'and that can be dangerous.' When trauma struck James Stewart in Vertigo, or Tippi Hedren in Marnie, they paid a higher price than wearing odd socks once in a while. Colour-blindness doesn't even play any part in the plot of Color of Night.

The hero leaves New York for LA, to spend time with his 'best friend' (also a therapist) whom he has apparently not seen for many years. Soon he is experiencing colour-blindness in more stimulating circumstances, unable to recognise the colour of Jane March's dress (it's not there for long), being teased by her to identify the precise shade of her nipples. We get to see Willis's manly parts, which is a novelty but not exactly a treat, and March's womanly parts, which may be a treat but is hardly, after The Lover, a novelty.

When Willis's best friend is murdered, he takes over the Monday-night therapy group, which oddball policeman Ruben Blades thinks includes the killer. In the LA of Color of Night, the police are no good at solving crime but dab hands at domestic cleaning and glazing, able to restore blood- soaked carpets and replace custom glass in time for the next session of the therapy group.

The group includes an obsessive-compulsive, whose main preoccupation is exactly how many times the therapist was stabbed, and a man- hungry kleptomaniac played by Lesley Ann Warren. She's the hardest kind of kleptomaniac to diagnose, the amnesiac kind, since after her first appearance, where patients are introduced quirk by quirk, she forgets to steal anything.

It's possible to combine a psychological thriller with a love story, as Vertigo so definitively did and as Jonathan Demme's neglected Last Embrace proved more recently, but it's fatal to introduce black comedy into the mix, as Color of Night tries to do. Once you've written an exchange like 'Inspiration of madness, Dale', 'Tyranny of normalcy, Bill', to be delivered in the course of a fight involving a nail gun (screenplay by Matthew Chapman and Billy Ray), it's hard to get back to leading a normal life. But nobody ever said therapy was going to be easy.

(Photograph omitted)