Ali (15); <br></br>The Son's Room (15)

I am the flattest! How to dump a legend on the canvas
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The Independent Culture

American biopics, as a rule, are big on invoking the royal road of destiny. Watching the lives of Great Names unfurl on screen – whether it's Malcolm X or Jimmy Hoffa, Tina Turner or Andy Kaufman – we're invariably aware of films taking their subjects by the hand and marching them towards their telling moment, the blaring banner headline that sums up a life. Michael Mann's account of Muhammad Ali's career is no exception, concluding on a freeze-frame of its hero, arms outstretched after his Kinshasa triumph over George Foreman.

It's hardly a surprise that the film ends just here. Yet the hubristic tag-line of Ali is, "Forget what you think you know". In other words, we're promised Ali as we've never seen him before. And in effect, this is what we get – an Ali without real passion, wit or brio. Mann has taken one of the most charismatic public figures of the 20th century and made a film that offers neither revelation or celebration – a result entirely characteristic of this flamboyant yet singularly humourless director.

In fact, the film is not at all about forgetting what we know, for it rather assumes we already know a lot about Ali. Mann is not one of those film-makers who feels obliged to explain things to us, or politely invites us into his world; his attitude seems to be that if we don't already share his in-depth knowledge, then we damn well should have boned up before we came. Hence the film's strangely uninvolving account of Ali's complex involvement with the Nation of Islam; of his relationship with eccentric trainer-cum-guru Drew "Bundini" Brown; of three variously fraught marriages.

The oddest thing the film requires us to forget is that Ali, and his on-screen incarnation Will Smith, have both in their time been consummately entertaining, vibrant figures. Mann plays down Ali's self-made cartoon image as rhyme-popping PR clown to give us a gravitas-laden agonist with the weight of African-American history on his shoulders. The key moment in terms of Ali's career in the ring, to which Mann devotes the film's final movement, is the "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire – an event evoked with considerably more brio in Leon Gast's 1996 documentary When We Were Kings. But it is clear that, for Mann, the moral fulcrum of his subject's life was his challenge to the US government itself – evoked pithily as a stern-eyed Ali refuses to step forward in the draft-selection line. It's only typical of Mann's literal-mindedness that the hard times that follow are evoked by Ali doggedly trudging through a grey, snowy night.

We can forget all we know about Will Smith, too – the personable rapper or the wry action-pic charmer. This film's Smith is convincingly vulnerable and certainly sympathetic, yet there's no vim in him; he's soberly pensive, wearing his impersonation like a solemn mantle. Considering his own rap prowess, his renditions of the famous spiels seem oddly dutiful, as if to remind us that the wordplay is less important that the political passion. There's a definite against-the-grain logic in playing down Ali's image as a showbiz fixture, yet part of his greatness was the way that he used his firecracker charisma as a political weapon, his rage all the more challenging because it came dressed as pleasure.

This lack of joy is very much a Mann trademark. He believes in the seriousness of American history, not the surface show. He's interested in the scenes behind the scenes – in CIA goons watching from distant hotel windows, in Ali's and Malcolm X's cavalier treatment from the Nation of Islam, in the apparent allies who clustered round, then vanished. Mann, however, is much less interested in character, and we never really know who Ali is – or anyone else, for that matter. There are only blips of the personal life, such as his rejection of his first wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) for failing to play the model of Muslim propriety, and the merest teasing intimation of sexual fecklessness. The only supporting character we really get a scent of, and then fleetingly, is the troubled, larger-than-life "Bundini" Brown (Jamie Foxx, the film's most vigorous turn), while Ali's only developed interplay with another character is his jokily antagonistic relationship with TV sports-caster Howard Cosell (a bizarrely made-up and wigged Jon Voight), and he's more an embodiment of the admiring media than a character in his own right. Otherwise, it's down to the odd cameo to leaven matters: Mikelti Williamson as shock-headed promoter Don King, illiteratively out-motormouthing even The Greatest.

As for the restaged fights, I'll take it on trust that they convincingly reconstruct Ali's great moves. Although Emmanuel Lubezki's camera gets inside the ring and seems to take some pummelling itself, the edited result never quite evokes real excitement. You don't feel Mann is enthusing about the action like an honest fan; he's more like a detached, cautiously admiring analyst. It's as if Mann is playing the contender himself, intent on measuring up to his subject, on being Hollywood's Biopic Champ. But he lacks the heart and the truly nifty moves.

Italian director Nanni Moretti is the reigning champ of European cinema – at any rate, the current holder of the Cannes Palme d'Or with his film The Son's Room. As a comic screen diarist, Moretti hasn't always been the most likeable figure – twitchy and self-obsessed, he uncomfortably resembles a bearded Angus Deayton at his most peevish. This time, though, he reins in his self-reflexive caprices to play a psychoanalyst who finds himself as tormented as his patients when his teenage son dies in a diving accident.

The Son's Room sometimes pulls our emotional strings with surprising directness, but with a rather distinguished sobriety too. One utterly matter-of-fact shot shows nails being driven into the dead boy's coffin – the grieving ritual as an everyday job of carpentry. There are tears shed, and sentiment creeps in through the side door of Nicola Piovani's awkwardly decorous music, yet this generally understated film defuses the stereotypes of Italian emotion on screen. The first reaction of Moretti's character is to try and drown his grief in the glare and racket of the local funfair; the sequence is all the more poignant for the suggestion that on some level he may actually be enjoying himself. The film's great revelation is that, even in the face of emotional and moral agony, there's always the possibility of being freshly amazed by the world. If the film sometimes appears slight, or a touch self-important, stick with it for the dazzling grace note of the ending, which persuasively argues for the redemptive value of giving hitchhikers that extra bit of mileage.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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