There’s something about being stuck under the sea in a big metal tube that brings out the essential humanity of both Nazis and Commies. Unlike Das Boot, though, K-19: The Widowmaker doesn’t depict the submarine as a place where fighting men can just be fighting men, free from totalitarian politics. The crew of K-19, a nuclear-powered Soviet sub that in 1961 may have nearly started World War III, is composed of regular Ivans with regular hopes and fears, commanded by firm but fair Capt. Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson). But just before the boat leaves port on its jinxed inaugural voyage, Polenin’s command is taken by a dislikable stickler, Capt. Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford, venturing a light Russian accent). After that, it’s hard to tell what’s supposed to be the movie’s essential drama: the possible end of the world when K-19’s makeshift nuclear reactor malfunctions or Ford’s playing against type.
Vostrikov remains a rigid, reckless ideologue as the likelihood of a meltdown increases, threatening to dose the crew with radiation and cause an explosion that jumpy NATO missile-controllers might take as a cue to nuke Moscow. Polenin, who remains on board as the executive officer, tries to dissuade Vostrikov from undertaking particularly risky maneuvers, but he refuses to countenance a mutiny. Meanwhile, various crew members venture into the reactor-containment area without radiation-proof suits to try to fix the problem, emerging with severe burns. One of them is inexperienced, terrified reactor officer Vadim Radtchenko (Peter Sarsgaard), who’s already been marked for doom by his attachment to a picture of his fiancee.
Kathryn Bigelow, Hollywood’s most macho woman director, revels in the blood, sweat, and noise but largely avoids the tough-guy fantasias of such previous efforts as Blue Steel (Ron Silver as a gun-fetishist serial killer), Point Break (Keanu Reeves as a surf-riding undercover FBI agent), and Strange Days (Ralph Fiennes as a sleazeball future-world dealer in illegal videos). The first fiction movie to be co-produced by the National Geographic Society, K-19 was derived from an actual, long-concealed incident and labors to get the historical and technical details right. For the first two-thirds of the film, the only thing that’s seriously overwrought is Klaus Badelt’s Slavic symphonic-choral score (part of which was recorded by the Kirov Orchestra at D.C.’s DAR Constitution Hall, oddly enough).
Like so many Hollywood change-of-pace ventures, however, the movie backpedals toward predictability in its final reel. Scripter Christopher Kyle’s dialogue becomes more conventional and less believable during the climax, perhaps showing the strain of its attempts to mellow Vostrikov’s character in time for the 25-years-later epilogue. (The humorless captain even concludes his tour of duty by making a Han Solo-
like joke.) Ultimately, K-19’s view from the other side of the Iron Curtain looks a lot like the vision of tight-lipped, self-sacrificing heroes purveyed by Cold War America.
Somewhere out there is someone who always wanted to see Jill Clayburgh wearing a strap-on. The unromantic, uncomedic romantic comedy Never Again is for that person—and no one else. It’s the latest low-budget self-indulgence from writer-director Eric Schaeffer, who at least didn’t cast himself, as he did in such ordeals as My Life’s in Turnaround and If Lucy Fell.
This time, Schaeffer abandons young(ish) love for the preposterously contrived affair of two obviously incompatible 54-year-olds: Grace (Clayburgh) is a bitter divorcee whose daughter has just left for college; Christopher (Jeffrey Tambor) is an exterminator and jazz pianist who loves and leaves younger women but has now decided—on the basis of one gender-bending dream—that he’s really gay. He goes looking for a “chick with a dick” (Michael McKean, no less), but soon bumps into Grace. (They meet in a gay bar, where, in a excruciating scene, Christopher assumes that Grace is a trans-something.)
The two determine that they share a “never again” attitude toward romance, but of course they fall for each other. Then, just to keep the story sputtering along, Christopher gets cold feet, so that not one but two medical emergencies must be concocted to reunite the couple—and you’ll never guess what Grace is wearing when she heads to the hospital. (No, it didn’t come from Toys in Babeland.)
Smarmy as it is, the dildo scene is actually one of the better moments, because the humor is physical rather than verbal. The lines Schaeffer has written for the foolishly intrepid Tambor and Clayburgh couldn’t be more maladroit if they were first-take improvs. Still, credit the latter’s ill-advised comeback for really sinking to the occasion: Her performance is as clumsy as the dialogue. CP