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In the mid-’80s, A Room With a View launched the Brits-in-Tuscany genre, which has swelled to include Enchanted April, Where Angels Fear to Tread, Stealing Beauty, and Tea With Mussolini. Philip Haas’ Up at the Villa, the latest and least of the lot, derives from a 1940 W. Somerset Maugham novella, a minor work by a writer whose literary stock has fallen and seems unlikely to recover.
Like last year’s Tea With Mussolini, Up at the Villa unfolds in Florence during the rise of fascism. Whereas Tea was crammed with enough plots and characters to sustain a dozen features, Villa is undernourished, focusing on the romantic conflicts of a single character over a long weekend in 1938. Kristin Scott Thomas stars as Mary Panton, a recently widowed, nearly impoverished English rose surviving on the generosity of Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox), who is soon to be appointed governor of Bengal.
Infatuated Sir Edgar, 25 years Mary’s senior, asks her to marry him. During the few days that she ponders his proposal, she attracts three other men: married American womanizer Rowley Flint (Sean Penn), sensitive young Austrian refugee Karl Richter (Jeremy Davies), and fascist functionary Beppino Leopardi (Massimo Ghini). Pursued by this League of Nations of potential lovers, Mary turns to two unreliable confidantes: pragmatic American expatriate Princess San Ferdinando (Anne Bancroft) and gay English gadfly Lucky Leadbetter (Derek Jacobi).
Maugham’s plot, as adapted by the filmmaker’s wife, Belinda, couldn’t be much wheezier. When Mary cautions Sir Edgar, “We can’t just think of ourselves. They need you in India,” you half-expect Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition to race in and reassure you that the scene is some sort of stiff-upper-lip parody. Maugham deserves the rap for the musty narrative, but the filmmaker’s spouse (who also edited the film) can’t escape censure for the clunky, occasionally ungrammatical dialogue—what are the odds of an English aristocrat concluding a sentence with “between you and I?”
None of the performances catch fire. Scott Thomas dips into an Audrey Hepburn bag—doe eyes, vulnerable smile, viola-toned line readings—but lacks the magnetism to rescue this rickety vehicle. She’s effective in conversational scenes but laughably inept when required to feign anxiety. Clearly contemptuous of the haberdasher’s-dummy role he’s stuck with, Penn, like George W. Bush, has to struggle to keep from smirking. Davies (Going All the Way, The Locusts), the weirdest young American actor to emerge since Crispin Glover, demonstrates that he can do his wacko routine with an accent, though not a recognizably Austrian one. Fox reprises the upper-class twit performance he’s been giving for three decades. Ghini, a survivor of Tea With Mussolini, receives just enough screen time to indicate that he’s Italian and sinister.
Entombed in black-and-white animal furs, Bancroft’s tart-tongued, pleasure-loving Princess is Auntie Mame abroad, greeting acquaintances with a hearty “Hello Duckie!” and urging uptight Mary to partake of life’s erotic and financial banquets. Bancroft’s shameless camping leaves Jacobi few opportunities to mince about. After being painstakingly introduced in the opening scenes, he mysteriously disappears until the movie’s fadeout.
As Up at the Villa limps along to the denouement telegraphed by its cast list, only its images command our attention: lavish interiors stuffed with objets d’art and touristy views of Tuscan exteriors, including the Palazzo Corsini, the San Miniato al Monte church and cemetery, the fascist-era Scuola Guerra Aeronautica, and the splendid Villa Centinale, near Siena. Writer-director Lisa Krueger’s hopeless Committed denies us even scenic distractions, offering little more to the eyes than it does to the ears and mind.
According to press material, Krueger’s movie is a romantic comedy, though you couldn’t prove it by the deathly silence at the critics’ screening I attended. Heather Graham stars as Joline, a Manhattan club music booker who values fidelity above all virtues. When her photographer husband, Carl (Luke Wilson), walks out on her, Joline sets out to locate him. This quest takes her to the arid outskirts of El Paso, Texas, where she finds him living in a trailer and casually involved with a waitress, Carmen (Patricia Velazquez). Variously counseled by her tag-along brother, Jay (Casey Affleck), Carl’s seductive artist-neighbor, Neil (Goran Visnjic), and a Mexican shaman (Alfonso Arau), Joline tests the limits of absolute constancy.
In 97 sluggish minutes, Krueger grinds this flimsy conceit—Joline as a beacon of commitment in a faithless age—as fine as grains of desert sand. It’s difficult to envision the target audience for this misfire. Women are unlikely to embrace a protagonist who, however strong-willed, consistently behaves like a nitwit. The film’s patronizing depiction of Mexican symbols and rituals will hardly uplift New Agers, and the chick-flick stigma will scare away most potential male ticket buyers.
The cast seems to be more perplexed than guided by Krueger’s slapdash direction. Unflatteringly photographed, Graham, who achieved a delicious balance of innocence and sexual abandon in Boogie Nights and Bowfinger, shrinks from Joline’s spunky cuteness. The entire film slips from her smooth shoulders, but she hardly deserves blame for refusing to reinvent herself as Meg Ryan. Despite star billing, Wilson, one of the few bright spots in the recent My Dog Skip, is on screen for no more than 15 minutes, in a caddish, one-dimensional role. Having witnessed Affleck here and in the equally dire Drowning Mona, I’d nominate him as the least promising discovery of the new millennium, cursed with a monotonous, high-pitched voice and a face that only a brother could love.
Of the principal players, Visnjic makes the strongest impression, projecting some welcome wit and erotic energy. Arau, stoically competent as the medicine man, is better known as the director of Like Water for Chocolate, based on wife Laura Esquivel’s novel. His latest directorial effort, Picking Up the Pieces, featuring Woody Allen and Sharon Stone, premieres this month on Cinemax, after apparently being turned down for theatrical distribution. Sight unseen, I can’t understand why this star-powered black comedy about a kosher butcher who murders his wife has been relegated to the ignominy of a cable debut while Committed receives an unwarrantedly prestigious national release. CP