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Tales of crusty curmudgeons redeemed by temporary custody of wide-eyed youngsters constitute one of the few foreign-language film genres still imported by this country’s overcautious distributors—which explains why Takeshi Kitano’s latest film, Kikujiro, got picked up after his previous one, Fireworks, failed to find much of a U.S. audience. This time around, the hero (played as usual by Kitano’s alter ego, Beat Takeshi) doesn’t shove a chopstick into anybody’s eye socket; the violence is mostly verbal, and more than balanced by sentimentality. Yet the two films have much in common.
In summary, Kikujiro sounds syrupy. In a nondescript section of Tokyo, 9-year-old Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi) is lonely and friendless during summer vacation. A woman who knows the boy’s grandmother enlists her husband, who seems to be an unemployed gangster, to take the kid to the beach. Instead, the roguish Kikujiro — known to the boy only as “Mister” — drags Masao to a bicycle-racing track, where he bets the kid’s travel money. One winning hunch convinces Kikujiro that Masao is a savant, but after they celebrate their success by going to a hostess bar, their luck turns. Disgusted, Kikujiro lets Masao wander off, only to find him in the clutches of a pedophile. Kikujiro rescues him and tacitly agrees to take Masao on a quest: The boy has just found the address and a photograph of the mother he
doesn’t ever remember knowing and now wants to find her.
The story is presented in a deliberately episodic style that suggests both silent-film comedies and traditional Japanese art’s preference for the abstract and the indirect. Kitano, who edits his own films, often cuts directly from confrontation to aftermath—which not only banishes violence from the screen but also establishes a distinctive rhythm. As in Fireworks, in which an ex-cop-turned-gangster takes his dying wife (Kayoko Kishimoto, who plays Kikujiro’s wife here) on a final trip around Japan, the action is interrupted by sight gags, playful asides, and small moments of serendipity. Both films fracture narrative through memory, with Kikujiro presented as a sequence of memories captured in Masao’s photo album.
One of the film’s motifs is the guardian angel: Masao wears a backpack decorated with quilted wings, Kikujiro gives him an angel-shaped bell, the two build a sand angel on the beach, and the film opens with a painting of an angel in an eye (done by Kitano, as were the paintings in Fireworks). Being touched by an angel may seem altogether too commonplace a notion in contemporary America, but like other Western religious traditions—Christmas, for example, which is a big date night in Tokyo—its significance is ambiguous in Japan.
If Kikujiro is an angel, he’s a distinctly hard-boiled one. In the course of the film, he steals a cab, battles a truck driver, berates a hotel desk clerk, and brawls with enforcers at a small-time temple carnival. When he decides to amuse Masao, he orders a few people the twosome have met on their trip—an itinerant poet and a pair of tough-looking but soft-hearted bikers—to join them in playing a series of elaborate games. (This is the most self-indulgent part of the film—and the one that most supports Kitano’s claim that Kikujiro was inspired by The Wizard of Oz.)
The movie’s centerpiece is a ruefully comic section in which Kikujiro vainly tries to hitch a ride, using such unsuccessful gambits as posing as a blind man and attempting to puncture the tire of a passing car. Aside from the irony of Kitano, a leading Japanese TV personality, being ignored by passing motorists, the rather bitter joke is that ordinary Japanese are too rigid and reserved to help Masao and his guardian angel. Only the occasional weirdo stops for them.
“Being polite is easier,” Masao suggests after Kikujiro’s hitchhiking gambits have failed. This offhand comment is significant because it’s virtually the only wisdom the quiet, docile boy offers. Although it certainly seems as if it will, Kikujiro never quite becomes the tale of a grump who’s mellowed by a kid. His actions suggest a growing fondness for Masao, yet Kikujiro remains gruff and self-absorbed. Though the movie itself is sometimes maudlin, it never cracks its namesake’s tough-guy shell. Perhaps that’s because Kitano’s model for Kikujiro was his own father.
With Mephisto and Colonel Redl, Istvan Szabo painted the first two of three panels about compromise and self-betrayal in 20th-century Europe. Rather than complete that triptych, however, the Hungarian writer-director has decided to a create an entirely new one. In Sunshine, three generations of men from an assimilated Jewish family attempt to tailor their identities to suit the preferences of a Hungarian regime: first the Austro-Hungarian empire (the background of Colonel Redl), then the Fascists (Mephisto), and finally the Communists. In this case, the third time is not the charm.
Sunshine is not a bad movie, but it is neither half as harrowing as Mephisto or Colonel Redl, nor distinctive enough to support another trudge through this well-traveled territory. Szabo tries for novelistic scope, but the three-hour result feels as stodgy as a Victorian novel without delivering the wealth of detail that might make the duration worthwhile. Indeed, for all its fustiness, the film plays a number of modern ironic tricks, most notably casting Ralph Fiennes as the leading representative of all three generations: ambitious judge Ignatz Sonnenschein, who changes his surname (“sunshine” in German) to the more Hungarian-sounding “Sors” to advance his career; Adam Sors, a champion fencer who converts to Catholicism so he can represent Hungary at the 1936 Berlin Olympics; and Ivan Sors, who becomes a commie cop to track down the fascists who killed most of his family and put him in a concentration camp.
On New Year’s Eve 1899, Ignatz predicts a new “century of love, justice, and tolerance,” but he gets only one of the three right. The judge and his descendants will indeed know love, each in his own controversial way: Ignatz falls for and marries his stepsister, Valerie (Jennifer Ehle), who is biologically his cousin; Adam aggressively courts and marries a woman he meets in conversion class, Hannah (Molly Parker), only to have an affair with his brother’s wife, Greta (Rachel Weisz); Ivan doesn’t marry but does have some torrid encounters with Carole (Deborah Kara Unger), a married woman whose husband is a potentially dangerous political enemy. These relationships make for three generations of the sort of furtive, explosive, half-clothed sex that has become a Fiennes specialty.
Each generational tale also provides a moral foil. Ignatz has his brother, Gustave (James Frain), a doctor and a socialist who denounces the government his sibling serves; Adam has Gen. Jakofalvy (Rudiger Vogler), who counsels assimilation but later admits his mistake; and Ivan has Auschwitz survivor Andor Knorr (William Hurt), the mentor Ivan betrays to prove he’s not sympathetic to an alleged Zionist conspiracy. Yet the only supporting player with a significant presence on the screen is Valerie, who survives as Adam’s mother and Ivan’s grandmother (played by Ehle’s mother, Rosemary Harris). Everyone else is like treated like history itself: just one of the forces that buffets Ignatz/Adam/Ivan, teaching him/them to be true to himself/themselves.
Sunshine may be clunkier than Szabo’s earlier films on similar themes because it’s a German-Hungarian-Austrian-Canadian co-production made in English with a cast of British, American, and Canadian actors. (Beastie dad Israel Horovitz helped the director craft the English-language dialogue.) The film also uses motifs, parallels, and techniques that can’t help but seem humorous: The emperor dies the same day as Ignatz’s father, authoritarian brutes keep taking the Fiennes character hunting, and the family is forever looking for its Rosebud, the long-lost recipe for the elixir that made the Sonnenschein fortune. Most unfortunately, Szabo repeatedly inserts his lead character(s) into a mix of real and fake newsreel footage, inevitably recalling Zelig. Although the film has powerful moments and fine performances, its most contrived moments make Europe’s worst century play like a vaudeville routine.
There’s a guy who is impeccably courteous, upholds family values, and reveres women. This same guy, however, is delighted by all human excretions and secretions, adores cruel physical humor, and can’t resist maliciously taunting members of minority groups, no matter how disadvantaged or obscure. Sometimes, he’ll be expressing the most sentimental of emotions, only to suddenly blurt the vilest of outbursts.
Actually, there are two of these guys: Peter and Bobby Farrelly, the writers and directors of There’s Something About Mary, which wobbled very profitably between romantic comedy and gross-out farce. Their new Me, Myself & Irene serves the same fetid cocktail, with a small twist: Instead of two distinct rivals for the heart of the movie’s heroine, there are two contenders inside the same body. Such a role is a routine assignment for Jim Carrey, who has played a man of two minds several times before. This time, though, the split also serves as an apt metaphor for the Farrellys’ crud ‘n’ roses worldview.
Our hero is Charlie (Carrey), a Rhode Island state trooper who’s been avoiding confrontation ever since his bride ran off with an African-American, Mensa-member, midget limo driver, leaving him with the couple’s toddler triplets. Charlie is unfailingly sunny and a devoted father to the boys, who have grown up to be brilliant if somewhat beefy African-American teenagers. Aside from his adoring sons, however, Charlie is dissed by everyone, from the guys down at the barbershop to the neighbor who encourages his dog to defecate on Charlie’s lawn. (The latter process is not presented discreetly.) Finally, Charlie cracks, creating an obnoxious alter ego, Hank.
This is not a scientific depiction of multiple-personality disorder, of course, as many mental-health groups have been quick to protest. But the Farrellys are masters of the new sensitivity, which holds that no minority-group slur can be taken seriously if it’s followed by a dozen slights of other minorities. Thus the brothers move quickly from affronting little people, blacks, and mental patients to abusing albinos, lesbians, children, nursing mothers, various barnyard animals, and a woman who happens to be purchasing a tube of vaginal salve when Hank encounters her.
None of these indignities, however, are visited on Irene (Renee Zellweger), who, like predecessor Mary, is treated with incongruous respect. There’s something about attractive young women that brings out the Farrellys’ deeply submerged chivalry. In fact, there are apparently only two things in the brothers’ universe that don’t deserve to be doused with snot, urine, semen, bug guts, and other substances that entertain kindergarteners of all ages: nice girls and modern rock. Even though the music doesn’t suit the mood, the movie is stuffed with tunes by such acts as XTC, Wilco, and Smash Mouth, many of them pointlessly performing Steely Dan songs. (New bands covering old songs is one of two movie trends on which Me, Myself & Irene is not ahead of the curve; the other is straight men having anal sex.)
The plot propels Charlie, Hank, and Irene through New England and upstate New York via cars, trains, and a motorcycle, chased by corrupt EPA cops. (Whatever.) Good Charlie falls in love with Irene, while bad Hank merely wants to try out his mammoth dildo on her. (Because Zellweger always looks 25 going on 7, the actress with a dildo in her hand may be the creepiest image in the whole movie.) Ultimately, Charlie and Hank fight for control of the former’s body, recalling Steve Martin’s schtick in All of Me. If only Martin had known just how big a jerk would be required to amuse an audience 15 years later. CP