The Adventures of

Shakespeare’s metaphor “All the world’s a stage” has supplied the theme for some of the greatest movies ever made, among them Carne’s Children of Paradise, Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, and Renoir’s The Golden Coach. Juxtaposing the world of the theater and quotidian existence allows filmmakers to observe how all human behavior is a kind of performance, how the artistic imagination can transfigure everyday life, dispelling tedium and righting injustice. Inhabiting the limbo between seeming and being, actors personify the quest to integrate what we’d like to be with the limitations the world imposes on us.

In John Turturro’s Illuminata, tempestuous stage diva Celimene (Susan Sarandon) muses, “There’s a thin curtain between theater and life,” echoing Renoir actress-heroine Anna Magnani’s bewildered question “Where does the theater end and life begin?” Turturro directed, co-scripted, co-produced, and stars in this ambitious comedy-drama about a turn-of-the-century New York repertory company. The film contains a number of lively performances and visual splendors, but, unfortunately, these elements never quite come together to create a convincing or affecting experience.

Turturro heads the ensemble cast as Tuccio, a playwright attempting to persuade the company to stage his latest work, Illuminata, designed as a showcase for Rachel (Katherine Borowitz), the actress he loves. The company’s owners (Beverly D’Angelo and Donal McCann) believe that the play is not ready for production. When Piero (Matthew Sussman), a young actor, collapses onstage during a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana, Tuccio persuades the troupe to debut Illuminata before a captive audience that includes Bevalaqua (Christopher Walken), a foppish critic who mocks it.

With the future of the play in doubt, Marco (Bill Irwin), an actor who has caught Bevalaqua’s eye, is pressured into privately meeting with the infatuated critic in order to change his opinion. Celimene, a famous, aging actress who sees Illuminata as a vehicle for herself, attempts to seduce Tuccio into becoming her personal playwright and lover. Flavio (Ben Gazzara), the troupe’s oldest performer, ends up in jail; the company’s ingenue (Georgina Cates) endures an ill-fated love affair; and two of the supporting players (Aida Turturro and Leo Bassi) enjoy illicit romps with the theater’s owners. With so much distracting activity occurring in the wings, the fate of Tuccio’s play and his relationship with Rachel hang in the balance.

As this summary indicates—I’ve omitted several additional subplots—Turturro and co-scripter Brandon Cole (from whose play the film was adapted) attempt to cram too many characters and themes into two hours. As a result, the pacing is rushed and the continuity chaotic, a mosaic of truncated vignettes. The screenplay’s stilted dialogue is an even greater liability. The characters spout the same stiff, self-consciously epigrammatic language on and offstage. No doubt this tactic is intentional, an attempt to link the actors with the roles they play. But most of the time, the dialogue is so arch that one has trouble believing that any performer would agree to deliver it professionally, let alone personally. Occasional anachronisms—such as Marco’s reluctance to visit Bevalaqua because “He’ll pork me”—further impair one’s ability to suspend disbelief.

Turturro’s cast members struggle, with varying success, to deliver their lines persuasively. Standouts include the swan-necked, commanding Borowitz (Turturro’s wife), the spunky D’Angelo (one of American cinema’s unsung treasures), the dashing Rufus Sewell as a frustrated actor, and the outrageous Walken, whose epicene performance seems inspired, in equal parts, by Oscar Wilde, John Simon, and Patricia Neal. But some of the actors are weirdly miscast. Sarandon, at 52, is chronologically suited to play a fading beauty, but the vivacious, voluptuous star looks scarcely more than half her age, even in a nude scene. At 49, rubber-faced Bill Irwin is an unlikely choice to impersonate the young actor who fires Bevalaqua’s erotic frenzy. And director Turturro, with his overbite, goofy eyes, and protruding beak, should have resisted casting himself as the romantic playwright. He may have won Borowitz’s heart in real life, but on screen he’s an implausible paramour. The curtain between theater and life may be thin, but not that thin.

Physically, Illuminata is a striking production, richly photographed by Harris Savides and handsomely designed by Robin Standefer (sets), Donna Zakowska (costumes), and Roman Paska (the poetic puppet sequences that bookend and punctuate the narrative). For a movie that never quite comes to life, Illuminata is filled with compensatory pleasures, not the least of which is the delightful coda in which the principal players take curtain calls. One can’t help wishing that they were really appearing in a play, rather than a movie, so they could have another shot at getting it right.

Like Illuminata, The Adventures of Sebastian Cole contains more plots and characters than writer-director Tod Williams can develop in a single feature. In the latest of what appears to be an endless stream of adolescent-male coming-of-age pictures, the rebellious 17-year-old title character, played by Adrian Grenier, painfully struggles to find himself after the collapse of his eccentric family. Set in Dutchess County, N.Y., in 1983, Williams’ screenplay features an assortment of stock types: the neurotic mother (Margaret Colin), the irresponsible father (John Shea), the bitchy sister (Marni Lustig), and the long-suffering girlfriend (Aleksa Palladino). Even the movie’s most eccentric character, Sebastian’s loving stepfather, Hank (Clark Gregg)—who decides to undergo a sex change—is a slight variation on John Lithgow’s role in The World According to Garp.

Williams’ patched-together narrative introduces, then ignores, any number of subplots: the sister’s failed relationship with her smirky, motorcycle-riding boyfriend, the mother’s return to England and subsequent third marriage, Sebastian’s run-ins with fatuous high school authorities, and his attempt to rescue a teenage whore from her pimp. His relationship with Hank, presumably the core of the story, is woefully underdeveloped. We’re never given much insight into what motivates Hank to transform himself into Henrietta, or why the denizens of his rural community fail to blanch at the spectacle of this strange, stumpy figure wandering about in ugly smocks with 5 o’clock shadow poking through his heavy makeup.

The cast does what it can with Williams’ scrappy, unfocused writing. With his peroxide-tipped mop of black hair, dark, searching eyes, and ripe Gene Tierney mouth, Grenier makes an arresting camera subject, and Palladino contributes some fresh, expressive moments. But the low-budget independent feature’s most interesting aspects are its laughable economies and careless continuity errors. Sebastian moves to England to live with his mother, but all we’re shown of that country is the interior of a cramped studio apartment. When Sebastian misses his school bus on a sunny autumn morning, Henrietta chauffeurs him to the school, which, inexplicably, is blanketed under a foot of snow. In the midst of a cross-cut conversation with his pre-op stepmother, Sebastian’s deli sandwich mysteriously metamorphoses into a bottle of Coke. Even his chest hair, apparent in some scenes, vanishes in others. Such what’s-wrong-with-this-picture blunders prove to be the most diverting elements of an otherwise stale saga of teenage angst. CP