FILM / The next Buster Keaton? Not a chance, Johnny

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The Independent Culture
THE MEEK shall inherit the box-office. Such is the hope of producers who this summer are fighting behemoths and musclemen with betrothals and amours. The charge of the light comedy brigade. A rather flimsy vanguard takes to the screen this week, offering similar plots, and meagre pleasures. It is the week of the weird stranger. He or she arrives in town to throw the locals into 'hilarious' confusion, sending them into cycles of anger, reconciliation and recharged self- knowledge. The story's the same whether we're in America, Sweden or Dinotopia: a comic shake-up of the existing order.

The stranger in Benny and Joon (12) is Sam (Johnny Depp). We first see him up a tree, and we come to feel he may be slightly out of his tree. With striped trousers, polka dot tie and bowler perched precariously over his flowing tresses, he looks like a clown. You could pay him no higher compliment than to tell him that, as he spends his spare-time honing old Chaplin routines. The cousin he's staying with doesn't find him that funny, though, and off-loads him as a forfeit in a poker game (of course, no one's writing articles about a man being bartered) to Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson). Joon is an outsider herself, prone to bouts of mental illness, and living with her long-suffering brother, garage mechanic Benny (Aidan Quinn). Before long the loopy pair are into the 'I love you' routine. Don't expect another Edward Scissorhands, though, even though it sounds like it.

Depp's Edward was a wounded, magical figure, hounded for his strangeness. His delicate body was wrapped in a mantle of myth, and he seemed poignantly too good for this world. Sam must have been conceived in these terms, but he's mundane and mediocre, his silent comedy only average: Chaplin bread-roll gags and hat-tricks, but with a studied, mechanical air. 'You could be the next Buster Keaton,' Benny tells him. More like the next busker on the left as you enter the subway. He doesn't have a bad enough time to make us feel for him, coming across as aloof rather than ostracised, more insufferable than suffering.

The same can be said of the others, particularly Joon. Supposed to be mentally ill, she seems just eccentric, wearing a snorkel and wielding a ping-pong bat to do the shopping. Schizophrenia should surely be more harrowing and less photogenic. The illness is being used as a touching affliction. It's part of the pull of everything in the film towards the cutesy. Sam mashes potatoes with a tennis racket and sits fully clothed in an empty bath. Joon and Benny (a dopey, affectless performance from Quinn) address each other by their full names: Benjamin and Juniper. Nothing is allowed to be disturbing: even when they're falling out everyone acts decently and charmingly. They are all too keen to be loved.

'I don't fit in here,' wails the mysterious blonde heroine, Fanny (Helena Bergstrom), of House of Angels (15). She's the talk of the small Swedish town she's descended on to claim her inheritance. 'I feel like everything is exposed,' she continues. Well, there is that danger if you have a penchant for shimmying out of your clothes outside church or when a workman is in the room. We watch the ripples of discontent as Fanny and her leather-clad companion, Zac (Rikard Wolff), plunge into the stagnant pool of small-town life. She's a singer who never knew her father, though he may be close by, and he's a transvestite performer who never stops eyeing beefy locals. The moral backlash is hypocritical, as half the town is up to no good: the roving-eyed rector, grasping lawyer and randy shopkeeper are all caught in the furtive act.

It feels like John Updike on a very bad day, with its small-town sex and repression - before long someone denounces Fanny as a witch. But British director Colin Nutley has none of Updike's wit or surprising tenderness towards his flailing characters. Much of the humour is Carry On crude, recalling the bad old days of Swedish comedy when every film seemed set on a package holiday and mired in chauvinism and self-pity. Later than we would like, it ends in ludicrous reconciliation between church and cabaret. The moral: 'Love thy neighbour.'

The interlopers in Super Mario Brothers (PG) are the eponymous Brooklyn plumbers (Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo), who search for palaeontologist princess Daisy (Samantha Mathis) in a parallel universe, 'Dinohattan'. It's like today's Manhattan, only instead of jabbering, the natives shoot fireballs and unleash pet dinosaurs. An old-style romantic comedy tries to keep afloat amid floods of special effects from the computer game the film's based on. It's not all bad, but all blurred, with not a script or a director in sight. The cast struggles on: Bob Hoskins bristles his moustache and goggles his eyes the more spiritedly with every non-sequitur; but Dennis Hopper, as lead villain, is strangely neutered by his triple-ridged hairdo - as if he needs cosmetic creepiness. There is a terrific machine which can 'de-evolve' a man into a monkey in seconds. But with no plot to harness it to, the film dematerialises equally quickly.

Illumination clouds into obscurity in Alan Rudolph's new film - appropriate for an Equinox (15), but more frustrating than fun. The film seems to exist to fulfil Rudolph's equinoctial conceit: it's a network of dualities, in which every yin has its yang. It revolves around a pair of twins (both played by Matthew Modine), separated at birth, now grown into a straight dealer and a gangster. Their lives start coinciding, as a journalist tracks their story. There's something of the existential thriller (as in Cronenberg's Dead Ringers), some downbeat romantic comedy (Marisa Tomei as a hooker with a kissing style that involves her whole body), and a lot of self-indulgence. Rudolph fans may thrill to those dreamy camera movements (the final swirling cliff shots are unforgettable) and the equally unworldly dialogue. Others will be baffled.

We are back to foreign bodies disrupting the status quo in Three of Hearts (18). The body, a particularly hirsute one, belongs to William Baldwin, and masculinists will be shocked to hear that it, too, gets sold: Kelly Lynch hires it from an escort agency for a wedding, and later to wreak revenge on her lesbian lover (Sherilyn Fenn) by seducing her with its shaggy charm. We stagger between tacky, Midnight Cowboy-ish one-night stands in the rich matrons' appartments the hustler patrols and ludicrous classes Fenn teaches at New York University. Love weaves its usual banal complications. Someone sums up: 'Love is like some . . . force of nature. You can't trick it. You can't control it.' Bring on the dinosaurs.

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