Parker's recipe for distaste : Cinema : THE CRITICS

THE FART, throughout history, has been the fanfare of the common man. First there was flatulence, then comedy. From Aristophanes to the Carry Ons, the ordinary bloke's wind has blasted at society. But as a rule such incontinence rarely disturbs the genteel fantasy of Hollywood (the camp-fire scene in Blazing Saddles is the exception that proves it). Alan Parker's The Road to Wellville (18) redresses the balance with a vengeance. In the story of Dr John Harvey Kellogg (Anthony Hopkins), cereal inventor and crackpot health-theorist, Parker takes us back to basics: to bottoms, enemas and "stools". Given the anal fixation, you might term it humorous fundamentalism. Par-ker's Road to Wellville is paved with broken wind.

The plot, in as much as this loose assortment of loose bowels and bum gags can be said to have one, involves the arrival, in autumn 1907, at Dr Kellogg's spa in Battle Creek, Michigan, of a pair of innocents. Will and Elean-or Lightbody (Matthew Broderick and Bridget Fonda) are naive, hopeful, earnest folk to whom Kellogg appears a messiah with a suitcase full of panaceas. Before long Will is on a diet of gallons of yoghurt. Sounds nice? It might be, if it wasn't all going into his anus. In the rest ofthe treatment de Sade meets Python. Inmates crouch in baths while electric currents are passed over their genitals; or are pummelled by loofahs; or their buttocks are wobbled into submission by merciless vibrating machines. This is a torture chamber designed by Heath Robinson. Worst of all is the communal singing: a relentlessly jolly, wordless yackering, to the tune of "Knees Up Mother Brown" - like a flock of geese reaching simultaneous orgasm.

Sex is one of Dr Kellogg's betes noires. He stalks it with orotund relish: "An erection is a flag-pole upon your grave". As Will and Eleanor furtively seek relief from Kellogg's grim regime, sex beckons them with increasing allure. For Will, there are fantasies about nurses and a masturbational device known as the Dusselberg Belt. Eleanor finds rap- ture in the hands-on approach to relaxation of a German physician, Dr Spitzvogel (Norbert Weisser).

The clash between Kellogg's monasticism and his charges' human impulses might have made for an engrossing drama - a battle between austerity and affection, ending up in a Reichian victory for sexual release. But Parker is too wound up in the trivia of his weird, lavatorial world to push forward a theme. There are other leads which are not followed up. Dana Carvey as Kellogg's black-sheep son (adoptive, for obvious reasons) has some promising scenes with a group plotting to con the public with a new cereal (health, one of them reckons, is "the open sesame to the sucker's purse"). But the film never follows up the question of whether the son's cynicism or the father's idealism is more dangerous. Parker is more interested in choreographing the boy's bombardment of his father's carol-service guests with bags of excrement (a real scream) than in delving into the disharmony between the two men.

Characters take a back seat to the loo seat. Anthony Hopkins gives one of those performances that fade with familiarity. As the proud, intransigent, slightly loony doctor, he has transformed himself into a beacon of evangelism. His close-shaven head seems shrunken with intensity and his voice is a rasping bark, squeezing past a pair of buck teeth. In his tan suit and plus-fours he looks like one of P G Wodehouse's crazier golfing goofs. And yet as he rants and raves, we find out precious little about what makes the doctor tick - or quack. Is it megalomania or altruism that courses through those robust veins? Kellogg ends up a monotonous monster, when there are hints that he was actually intriguing and ambivalent: his ideas come across as an odd mixtureof the prescient and the plain barmy. Likewise, the Lightbodies are as insubstantial as their name suggests.

Some people at the screening I went to laughed like drains. Maybe they were Alan Parker's family, or his backers. Most of us sat in pained silence. Parker, renowned as a populist, may be discovering that his own sense of humour is far out of the ordinary. This tale clearly tickled him. To me it seemed like a daft cameo, unbearably inflated into a full-length movie. A stare into your own toilet bowl will provide more merriment.

Luc Besson's American debut Leon (18) opens with one of those city skyscapes that Peter York wrote about in last week's Sunday Review. This helicopter routine is a favourite establishing shot for thrillers (see Clint Eastwood's police films). But here ithas the air of an assault, of the French director swaggering in to take Manhattan. Besson has made a sleek thriller (in the manner of his Nikita), about a French hitman (Jean Reno) who befriends a 12-year-old girl (Natalie Portman).This after her familyhas been wiped out in a raid by a corrupt drugs squad, led by an insouciantly vicious Gary Oldman.

Natalie Portman sports a precocious Lulu Brooks bob - a lucky charm for actresses, from Melanie Griffith in Something Wild to Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. She provides a glimmer of tenderness in a film of chic brutality. With her combination of sophistication and girlishness she is grave and affecting - but also funny, as she swiftly fibs her way out of any trouble. Besson is too pumped-up on violence and Oldman's psychotic posturing to realise that the really dangerous thing would have been to take therelationship between girl and man an inch or two further. As in Nikita, Besson is suggesting that a training in savagery is all a troubled girl needs to find her self-respect. Still, he brings off his bullet-ridden climax with great aplomb.

Darnell Martin's I Like It Like That (18) is the first film directed by a black woman to be funded by a major studio (Columbia). Lauren Velez and Jon Seda play a pair of Latinos whose marriage comes under strain when he goes to jail. She gets a job in a record company, working for a lascivious yet attractive white boss (Griffin Dunne). Her husband's mates are relaying every move (and more) back to him in jail. Martin shows how such hip, modern lives are undermined by the old atavistic forces of pride, machismo and crazy, misplaced romanticism. The further Velez rises, the more inevitable it is that she will be clawed back down. Though uneven, the film vividly captures the squabbling violence endemic on the breadline. The leads are engaging, and there is a colourful subplot involving a transsexual who lends Velez a pair of breasts. Martin lacks the crisp command of the young Spike Lee. But where much recent black film-making has been a facile blend of the incendiary and the simplistic, her world is satisfyingly messy.

Trapped in Paradise (PG) is a turkey left over from Christmas. Three brothers rob a bank on Christmas Eve in a small town in Pennsylvania, and have to cope with some madcap hiccups and major Capraesque scruples. The cast is promising (Nicolas Cage, Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey - again), but the script is both dire and interminable. This is the sort of tired genre material that Quentin Tarantino has been turning on its head for a couple of years, and it's hard to take seriously now.

Cinema details: Review, page 74.