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and Joe Russo

All the world’s a stage to veteran French actor Gilbert Valence—which gives Manoel de Oliveira lots of choices as to where to place his camera to capture the performer’s life and work. The nonagenarian Portuguese writer-director’s I’m Going Home begins with Gilbert’s performance in Ionesco’s The King Is Dead, raging against the possibility of his character’s demise. Before the performance ends, however, de Oliveira moves the vantage point backstage, where the real drama is occurring: The actor’s wife, daughter, and son-in-law have just been killed in an auto crash—news that awaits the actor after his curtain call.

Although he conveys unruly emotion on stage, in his private life Gilbert (Michel Piccoli) is always composed. I’m Going Home gives him time alone to recover from the shock of his family calamity, picking up the story again when the actor has settled into a comfortable routine with his only surviving relative, his young grandson Serge (Jean Koeltgen). Gilbert has his daily rituals, including a cup of coffee at a Left Bank cafe where he and his copy of Liberation are invariably followed at the same table by a man who reads Le Figaro. Gilbert wanders Paris’ lively, urbane streets, encountering the occasional admirer or buying a pair of shoes—mundane activities that de Oliveira throws into relief by shooting them from unexpected angles. Gilbert signs autographs on the sidewalk, divided from the viewer by a shop window that makes his conversation with his fans inaudible; later, when he discusses his life with his agent (Antoine Chappey), the camera contemplates the actor’s new shoes rather than his face.

Gilbert knows what befits him and his career. He rejects his agent’s counsel on matters both personal (that he should have an affair with a young actress) and professional (that he should take a role in a TV action movie). The aging performer expresses his fears of aging and mortality only onstage, first in The King Is Dead and then in The Tempest. Thus it’s fitting that Gilbert finally loses his equanimity when playing a role for which he is chronologically and linguistically unsuited: Buck Mulligan in an English-language film of Joyce’s Ulysses, directed by arty American John Crawford (John Malkovich). In another remarkable sequence, de Oliveira has cinematographer Sabine Lancelin shoot a rehearsal of Gilbert’s first scene with the camera trained on Crawford’s face, registering his reaction to a performance we can only hear. The denouement of the actor’s Ulyssean adventure is quietly devastating, although undermined by the nagging realization that no director would cast a 75-year-old Frenchman (which is what Piccoli was when this movie was filmed in 2000) as Buck Mulligan.

A little movie with a large theme, I’m Going Home is essentially three set pieces, arranged between slices of life and amid comic asides that play like vaudeville bits from an alternate (and gentler) universe. At 90 offhand minutes, the film doesn’t feel like a grand statement, even though death is its punch line. If the home that ultimately awaits Gilbert and his creator is the grave, de Oliveira counsels not gloom but attentiveness to the pleasures of everyday life.

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In the opening scene of The Man from Elysian Fields, readerless writer Byron Tiller (Andy Garcia) approaches a woman in a Pasadena bookstore, trying to persuade her to buy a copy of his remaindered novel, Hitler’s Child. Believing he’s made the sale, Byron heads home to pathologically supportive wife Dena (Julianna Margulies) to tell her that a few pennies of royalties will be headed their destitute way. It’s hard to believe that even a schmuck like Byron doesn’t know that he isn’t paid royalties on remaindered books, but the film’s real problem is that director George Hickenlooper and scripter Philip Jayson Lasker don’t seem to know stuff like this, either.

Such lapses wouldn’t matter so much if Man were simply the tale of a near-bankrupt guy who agrees to work for Elysian Fields, an L.A. escort agency that caters exclusively to wealthy heterosexual women. Byron is recruited by an impeccably dressed gentleman who has an office down the hall, suavely weathered Luther Fox (Mick Jagger in his “Please allow me to introduce myself” mode). To support Dena and their young son, Byron reluctantly agrees to a few discreet assignments. Client No. 1 (and only) is Andrea Alcott (Olivia Williams), the beautiful young wife of dying literary lion Tobias Alcott (James Coburn), who just happens to be Byron’s hero. Tobias is an exceptionally vigorous invalid, but he realizes that he can no longer satisfy his wife’s every desire, so he accepts Andrea’s trysts with Byron. The great writer is less tolerant, however, when Byron reads Tobias’ unpublished final novel and pronounces it weak. Yet Tobias knows that Byron is right, and soon the younger man is helping to rewrite the book—which just goes to prove that being a male hooker is the route to fame and fortune.

Well, perhaps that’s not what Man intends to demonstrate. Knocking around somewhere in this painfully fatuous movie are themes of fidelity and integrity. While providing vital services to both Andrea and Tobias, Byron does lose Dena, which is some sort of catastrophe: These two are so cosmically enamored that separating them for any length of time might lead to an imbalance in the universe. But Byron must be bereft—at least temporarily—to show that being a escort is bad, bad, bad. Pursue pleasing rich old ladies for profit and you’ll end up like dapper but forlorn Luther, who’s humiliated when he professes true love for longtime client Jennifer Adler (Anjelica Huston), or—even worse—coarse, empty Greg (former glam rocker Michael Des Barres, who now looks like the poor man’s Terence Stamp).

It’s hard to concentrate on the film’s big themes, however, while being distracted by the crude, phony dialogue and the script’s utter ignorance of the lit biz: Tobias’ novels are all available in hardback, and Byron got compared to Hemingway in national magazines for writing Hitler’s Child, whose plot suggests Robert Ludlum-esque schlock. Hilariously, the movie ends with a Jagger voice-over that endorses monogamy as the highest virtue. The filmmakers—who include co-producer Garcia—seem not to have noticed the irony of this, but The Man From Elysian Fields makes no case for their acumen on this or any other subject.

While Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney remade Ocean’s Eleven as a shimmeringly vapid celebration of dress-up larceny, their production company assigned the remake of the grungier Big Deal on Madonna Street to a couple of rookies, brothers Anthony and Joe Russo. The Russos might seem to have gotten the better deal, because Big Deal—an Italian comedy made in 1958, two years before the original Ocean’s Eleven, and redone by Louis Malle as Crackers in 1983—is the sharper original. The bumbling-lowlife genre has gotten quite a workout in the last decade, though, leaving the Russos’ Welcome to Collinwood with no place new to go. Unless you count Collinwood itself, a declining neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland, the brothers’ hometown.

The Russos, who also scripted this chronologically unspecific tale, assemble a cast of losers desperate for a big score: lousy boxer Pero (Sam Rockwell); baby-toting artist Riley (William H. Macy); washed-up Toto (Michael Jeter); dashing but broke Basil (Andrew Davoli); and Leon (Isaiah Washington), a characterization-free character who wants to help his sister Michelle (Gabrielle Union) escape to the suburbs. Co-producer Clooney cameos as Jerzy, a safecracking tutor who sometimes disguises himself as a rabbi and who helps the guys plan a jewelry-store robbery whose very idea is stolen—from incarcerated Cosimo (Luis Guzman), the first person to learn about the vulnerable safe. Pero makes sure that Cosimo spends additional time in prison, cutting him out of his own plan; he then sets out to seduce Carmela (Jennifer Esposito), who lives in the apartment adjacent to the safe, but falls for her instead. Meanwhile, Basil takes off with Michelle, leaving the gang one short for the job.

Full turnout doesn’t really matter, however, because what follows is a string of slapstick blunders, set to fake old-timey jazz composed by ex-Akronite Mark Mothersbaugh. The heist sequence is directed competently, but none of the gang’s misadventures come as any great surprise. Ultimately, the Russos’ movie seems as hapless as their characters’ robbery. CP