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There’s this bowl, see? It’s made of crystal overlaid with gold, and it’s exquisite. But there’s a flaw: a tiny crack that most observers wouldn’t even detect. But people of discernment will notice it, and for those people, that crack will just ruin everything. And if the bowl should happen to become the property of a woman whose marriage is subtly but crucially fractured, then it will inevitably become the drawing-room-drama equivalent of a banana cream pie in the kisser.

Ismail Merchant and James Ivory have a problem with such motifs. The longtime duo of producer and director has impeccable taste in period architecture, costumes, and décor, but when it comes to metaphors, shows all the finesse of Adam Sandler. To be fair, the central conceit of The Golden Bowl comes from Henry James’ 1904 novel; Merchant-Ivory and their customary scripter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, didn’t invent it themselves, the way they did the trapped-bird bit that turned into a travesty in the final moments of their adaptation of The Remains of the Day. Besides, no conventional filmmaker could do justice to the vast, glacial circumlocutions that characterize James’ grandest novels.

In fact, Merchant-Ivory ended up splitting with Miramax over the pace of The Golden Bowl. The distributor demanded that the filmmakers trim the 130-minute film, perhaps because it was received unenthusiastically in Europe last year. But cutting wouldn’t have resolved either the inherent difficulties of adapting such an overstuffed novel—more than 500 pages in the paperback that I, admittedly, merely skimmed—or the film’s directorial and casting problems.

Set in Britain and Italy in the first decade of the 20th century, The Golden Bowl works small variations on James’ customary themes. The innocent young American woman abroad is Maggie Verver (Kate Beckinsale), who marries dashing, impoverished Italian Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam). Rather than being deceived by a cunning European, however, Maggie is the victim of another American, Charlotte Stant (Uma Thurman), reputedly her best friend. Charlotte was Amerigo’s lover and has agreed to part with him because she is also penniless and because he needs the Verver fortune to restore his family palazzo. But Charlotte soon hits on a strategy to keep her close to the prince: She marries Maggie’s father, Adam Verver (Nick Nolte), a wealthy widower who is in Europe building an art collection that he will ultimately transport to a new museum in his hometown, which James calls American City. (It’s probably Pittsburgh, or perhaps Cleveland.)

Maggie and her father are nearly inseparable, and when she bears a son, visits to Grandpa become even more frequent. Left to their own devices, Charlotte and Amerigo rekindle their passion, despite gentle rebukes from another American expat, Fanny Assingham (Anjelica Huston), and the prince’s own misgivings. “They’re simple and they’re good,” he tells Charlotte of the Ververs. But are they? Or have the Americans, in James’ century-old view, begun to master the European art of interpersonal intrigue?

Merchant-Ivory and Jhabvala’s treatment of James’ tale opens with the dramatization of a medieval scandal that is all too obviously relevant to the principal story. They model most of their bolder devices, however, on those of Jane Campion’s adaptation of James’ The Portrait of a Lady. Like that film, The Golden Bowl employs flickering snippets of early cinema (as well as industrial machinery, streetcars, and an Orientalist ballet) to conjure the heady modernism of a period that now seems antique, and uses horror-flick gambits to suggest the dark forces at work beneath upper-class decorum. In one scene, Charlotte and Amerigo go to a wax museum to discuss their affair under the baleful gazes of the mannequins and then regard themselves in fun-house mirrors, as if to catch a glimpse of their ids in the fractured images. In another, Maggie reads “Hansel and Gretel” to her son, a fable in which “something terrible” happens—just as in her fairy-tale marriage.

Unlike Campion, however, The Golden Bowl’s filmmakers are quite unprepared to truly confront the id. Their preferred part of the Freudian troika is the superego, the force that governs decorum, artifice, and repression. Viewers who have squirmed through previous Merchant-Ivory tableaux may be kindly disposed toward any attempt to disrupt the filmmakers’ habitual gentility, but gentility is what this crew knows best.

With the exception, that is, of one of the performers. Most of the principal characters are burdened with accents—Beckinsale talks American, Northam assays Italian, and Huston does Dixie—but the effects are only mildly distracting. Thurman, however, is as ungainly in The Golden Bowl’s period dresses as she was in Dangerous Liaisons 13 years ago. With her Botticelli looks, the actress might seem a natural for costume roles, but she’s actually a Hollywood-style actress, unskilled at modulating her utterly contemporary style or creating a character distinct from her usual screen persona. You might say she’s a beautiful vessel, but one that’s—oh, never mind.

Some movies withhold the most banal of information in the hope that you’ll mistakenly think they’re interesting. Not only is Angel Eyes that sort of movie, but one of its principal characters likes to keep secrets, too: Catch (Jim Caviezel) appears out of nowhere one day to rescue tough-shelled, soft-centered Chicago cop Sharon Pogue (Jennifer Lopez) from a gangbanger assassin. Sharon is fascinated by the stranger who saved her life, but Catch won’t reveal a thing about himself. Is he a ghost, an angel, a CIA agent, a serial killer, an Amway salesman? Whatever your hypothesis, director Luis Mandoki and writer Gerald DiPego hope it will keep you guessing long enough to forget about asking for your money back.

Sharon has some problems with her family: Ten years ago, she called the cops on her wife-beating dad, and father and daughter have been estranged ever since. Sharon is as bullheaded as Daddy, but she channels that fury for good, slamming skinheads to the ground and popping another relative in the mouth when he, too, engages in spousal abuse. By comparison, Catch seems to have it pretty good. He has no family, no friends, no furniture, and no razor—not to mention no job. You can tell he’s really weird, though: He walks everywhere.

For a few minutes, Angel Eyes pretends to be the movie its ads depict: a cross between Ghost and The Sixth Sense. Mandoki gives the action a mock-documentary kick with frantic handheld camera movements, and Marco Beltrami’s score is mostly in the key of ominous. It quickly becomes clear, however, that Catch is no threat to Sharon, even though the movie toys with the riddle of his existence a little longer: Is Sharon’s mystery date hiding his life story for a good reason, is he suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or is he just one of those guys who heard that looking vulnerable and being enigmatic draws women like moths to a bug zapper? Caviezel was auditioned because Lopez was beguiled by his eyes in The Thin Red Line, and he is definitely one soulful sad sack.

The Mexican-born Mandoki has come to specialize in romantic Hollywood dramedies about seemingly mismatched couples, and the list of films he’s directed is enough to constitute a powerful warning: White Palace, Born Yesterday, When a Man Loves a Woman, and Message in a Bottle. Angel Eyes is more stylish than any of those predecessors but ultimately is just as glib and banal. The movie’s enigmatic aura yields a quick fix, and its demons—or whatever they are—are banished in favor of a middle-class suburban notion of restoration. Indeed, the film’s final moment of affirmation owes less to M. Night Shyamalan than to Dick Cheney. CP