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Don’t let the recent spate of imaginative American movies (Being John Malkovich, Three Kings, The Insider) trick you into thinking that Hollywood has changed its ways. As two of this week’s releases confirm, that vast processing plant continues to recycle used goods with ever-diminishing results.
Anywhere but Here is Terms of Endearment ultra-lite. Screenwriter Alvin Sargent and director Wayne Wang are so upfront about their intentions that one of the film’s characters explicitly refers to that Oscar-winning comedy-drama.
Wang’s movie, based on a Mona Simpson novel, opens with Adele August (Susan Sarandon) and her 14-year-old daughter, Ann (Natalie Portman), en route from Bay City, Wis., to Beverly Hills in their 1978 gold Mercedes. As the pair squabble, flashbacks reveal that Adele has abandoned her second husband, a doting ice-skating instructor, in order to begin what she imagines will be an exciting new life in California, dragging the reluctant Ann along with her. Adele is impulsive, impractical, brash, and optimistic; Ann is thoughtful, realistic, soft-spoken, and melancholy. To paraphrase Wordsworth, the child is the mother of the woman.
The remainder of Anywhere but Here runs this role-reversal into the ground. Living hand-to-mouth in a series of crummy Los Angeles apartments, Adele takes a teaching job at a ghetto school, mistakes a one-night stand with a handsome orthodontist for True Love, and tries to push her protesting daughter into an acting career. Meanwhile, Ann excels at her high school studies, endures her mother’s humiliations, and dreams of escaping to an Ivy League college. Apart from a few exchanges of zingy dialogue and several brief digressions—the unexpected death of a relative, Ann’s flirtation with a classmate—the movie listlessly chases its own tail (and tale) for two hours.
Anywhere but Here was designed as a vehicle for its leading ladies, and neither disappoints. With her headlamp eyes alternately gleaming with hope and brimming with tears, Sarandon does all she can with a role that isn’t consistently imagined. (In most scenes, flashy Adele is decked out like a Christmas tree, but occasionally she dons an incongruously subdued outfit. Although she is outspoken in her encounters with family, colleagues, and authority figures, she inexplicably turns into a shrinking Stella Dallas when Ann invites her to a Christmas party at a wealthy friend’s home.) Sarandon is too intelligent and vibrant to squander her talent on synthetic matinee fare such as this and last year’s soppy Stepmom.
Sarandon stipulated that she would play Adele only if Portman were cast as Ann, and she generously hands over several scenes to the young actress. Ann, the better-written part, is wise beyond her years, as is Portman, turning in a performance of rare sensitivity and nuance. Her work is less flamboyant than Sarandon’s but considerably deeper. Cinematographer Roger Deakins loves photographing her face, which, during the course of the film, seems to mature from pubescent softness to defined adolescent beauty. The other cast members aren’t allotted enough footage to make much of an impression. Bonnie Bedelia, who plays Adele’s exasperated sister, has only a handful of lines and appears to have been a casualty of the editing process. Dentally challenged Shawn Hatosy, the saving grace of Outside Providence, again shines in his few scenes as Ann’s high-spirited cousin.
Since scoring a box-office success with The Joy Luck Club, Wang, whose interesting, offbeat efforts (Dim Sum, Slamdance, Smoke) have not drawn large audiences, risks being pigeonholed as a women’s director, a contemporary George Cukor. Although he leans too heavily on soundtrack vocals to underline emotions, he executes Anywhere but Here with assurance. But he doesn’t seem to be as personally involved as he was with his more idiosyncratic projects. Perhaps he shares my skepticism that a film aimed at a female audience necessarily needs to confine itself to emotions and ignore ideas. Think what he, Sarandon, and Portman could have achieved if armed with a screenplay that had more on its mind than a repetitious series of mother-and-child estrangements and reunions.
Nobody could mistake Seven Chances, Buster Keaton’s 1925 silent masterpiece, or Gary Sinyor’s remake, The Bachelor, for a chick flick. In Keaton’s 56-minute comedy, a young man is informed that he will inherit a $7 million legacy if he gets married by the evening of his 27th birthday. With less than 24 hours to comply, he clumsily proposes to his girlfriend, who, feeling exploited, turns him down. He spends the rest of the day trying to find someone—anyone—to wed, and being repeatedly rebuffed. His best friend comes up with a solution—publishing a newspaper account of Keaton’s quest for a wife—and tells the hopeful heir to be at the church at 5 p.m.
Keaton arrives early and, exhausted, takes a nap on the front pew. When he awakens, the sanctuary and the street outside are overflowing with hundreds of greedy women of every possible age, size, and ethnicity, all clad in grotesque wedding gowns and monstrous headdresses. Terrified, Keaton tries to escape, but the enraged mob of women chases him through the streets of Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean. As he runs down a steep hillside, he dislodges several rocks, starting an avalanche behind him. Keaton dodges hundreds of falling rocks, ranging in size from bowling balls to 8-foot boulders, and survives the onslaught, only to have a small, straggling pebble knock him unconscious. You don’t have to have a beard, an umbrella, and a Viennese accent to interpret this extraordinary sequence as a castration-anxiety fantasy.
In their remake, Sinyor and screenwriter Steve Cohen omit the surrealistic avalanche, probably because no contemporary comic, not even rubber-jointed Jim Carrey, could replicate it. But they retain the marriage-by-sundown legacy device—upped to an inflationary $100 million—and the rampage of would-be brides, this time through the hills of San Francisco. To extend their rehash to twice the length of Seven Chances, they pad out the original’s tight scenario with an assortment of irrelevant subplots and secondary characters. By the time the rowdy brides descend on the church—still a surefire gimmick—too much footage has been consumed by tiresome filler for the movie to recover.
Keaton’s legendary deadpan was not the result of a lack of expressiveness, but a projection of his stoic response to a world in which he could relate to objects (The General’s train, The Navigator’s ocean liner) but was baffled by the behavior of human beings. Chris O’Donnell, who has inherited the Keaton role, is blank-faced simply because he can’t figure out any way to animate his bland, cartoonishly handsome features. Apart from some half-hearted Jack Lemmon-ish hand flailing, he brings nothing to the party. Renee Zellweger attempts to compensate for her inert co-star by outfitting the thankless girlfriend character with an array of tics and eccentricities. One could argue that she tries too hard, overworking her Gloria Grahame mouth and perking like Shirley MacLaine on amphetamine, but her heroic efforts to humanize this mechanical movie deserve applause. As O’Donnell’s confederates, Hal Holbrook, Artie Lange, and Edward Asner merely collect their paychecks, and Peter Ustinov trots out his none-too-convincing American accent as O’Donnell’s grandfather. Brooke Shields has an unexpectedly peppery scene as a hard-bargaining socialite weighing the advantages of O’Donnell’s marriage proposal. Mariah Carey is predictably inept (and surprisingly unphotogenic) in her cameo as an opera singer who bluntly rejects O’Donnell’s offer.
Cohen adds a few promising embellishments to the Keaton original, notably an opening stampede of wild horses, symbolizing the masculine desire to remain unfettered by a mate. (This invention neatly foreshadows and visually rhymes with the rampaging brides.) But Sinyor’s direction and Simon Archer’s camerawork are insurmountable liabilities. As a director, as well as an actor, Keaton was a master of timing, working in long takes to build comedic rhythm. Sinyor, by contrast, stifles his jokes by presenting them in visual snippets and relying excessively on oppressive full-screen close-ups. Archer’s images are too dark and drab for comedy, and his lighting so unflattering that the senior cast members appear to be awaiting the mortician. Like a demented jukebox, the soundtrack spews a nonstop fusillade of pop, jazz, and classical recordings, drowning out chunks of dialogue.
Whenever I’ve shown the silent Seven Chances to film students, even without background music, the classroom has resounded with laughter. At the state-of-the-art stadium theater where I watched The Bachelor, the Dolby Digital soundtrack bounced off the walls, and I heard only a few forced titters. CP