FILM: The least appealing man in film history

COLD FEVER Fridrik Thor Fridriksson (15) FORGET PARIS Billy Crystal (12)
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Which is the funnier film: an Icelandic-Japanese road movie about an executive in a fish company who travels to the Far North, or a Hollywood romantic comedy starring Billy Crystal? High concepts - the pithy 20-word plot synopsis - might be fine for pitching a movie. But they're less reliable when it comes to assessing if the result's any good.

Cold Fever - the first of the two - is a lot less esoteric than it sounds. The producer, Jim Stark, has worked on a suite of interesting US independent movies, including Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law and Mystery Train, Alexander Rockwell's In the Soup and Greg Araki's The Living End: like them, Cold Fever is a shaggy-dog ramble. But it also has a more poetic, dream-like quality than its American cousins.

The main character (played by Masatoshi Nagase, the Japanese Elvis fan in Mystery Train) goes to Iceland, reluctantly, at his grandfather's request: he must perform the last rites for his parents, who died there in an accident some years ago. His quest, needless to say, takes him to the furthest flung corner of that deep-frozen country, meeting many a pawky local eccentric (not to mention the odd ghost) along the way: a woman who "collects" other people's funerals, a taxi driver who pulls over in the middle of nowhere to appear in a village nativity play and a posse of country and western fans - distant cousins, one presumes, of Aki Kaurismaki's Leningrad Cowboys.

The voyage opens up his world, in a very literal sense: Cold Fever starts with the cramped, near-square images we now associate with made-for-television movies, but, as the plane approaches Iceland and he sees for the first time the unearthly snowscapes, the film's aspect ratio flips out suddenly to wide screen. When Nagase has to drop out of the holiday he had wanted to take, a golfing course, he has to give his boss his tee-off times, so crowded and overstretched are the facilities. Iceland is so empty that one shot, of a particularly God-forsaken highway, includes a road sign, apparently authentic, which warns the traveller, "Does anyone know you are going this way?"

These are all standard road movie themes, but Cold Fever has several sweet things in its favour. Nagase's deliciously deadpan performance, for one, which fits the film's minimalist humour; the novelty of the setting; and the idea that, for all their surface differences, "home" and "abroad" - both fishing, sea-faring nations, both of them cultures saturated in the supernatural - have more to unite than to divide them.

Forget Paris also begins with last rites in a foreign country, performed by Billy Crystal who travels to France to bury his father there. The coffin goes AWOL, Debra Winger's airline executive steps in, an idyllic week in Paris leads to marriage, and the story proper - romantic illusions bumping against the demands of marriage - begins.

Poor Debra Winger. She finds a mouse in her bed, drives down a highway with a live pigeon stuck to her face (don't ask) and submits to in vitro fertility treatment for two years, unsuccessfully: some of the film is brutally realistic. Worst of all, she's married to probably the least appealing romantic leading man in Hollywood history.

For all his unattractiveness, Crystal just about passed muster in When Harry Met Sally. But that film was written and directed by superior talents, Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner. Forget Paris is co-written and directed by Crystal, B. The whole point of Harry was that he was a schmucko who only gradually emerged as a viable lover. In Forget Paris, Crystal is smart, witty, charming - at least that's what his friends keep saying. Actually, he's a mass of flat wisecracks and facial tics: he should take lessons from Nagase, who extracts comedy out of the faintest quiver of a lip. The pity is that there's a great supporting cast: Joe Montegna, Julie Kavner and the gravel-voiced, sardonic Cathy Moriarty (Robert De Niro's wife in Raging Bull). More from them, and Forget Paris might have been something else than a trumpet loudly tooting in a one-man-band.

n On release from tomorrow

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