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“Martha Stewart dies of cancer” could be the shorthand description of One True Thing, a domestic drama that marks the beginning of the fall season of movies with strong female characters. Although she’s played by Meryl Streep, however, exemplary housekeeper Kate Gulden is not the focus of Carl Franklin’s film. Even in autumn, movies about middle-aged characters are considered commercially risky, so the scenario emphasizes daughter Ellen (Renee Zellweger), an ambitious New York magazine writer who informs us at the movie’s beginning that she’s never been very close to her mother.
Adapted from a novel by former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen, this parable is set on the upper-middle-class fringe of the New York metropolitan area, presumably someplace in Connecticut. (The setting is just up the road from The Ice Storm, 15 years later.) When Ellen comes home for her father’s birthday party, she finds her father, English professor George (William Hurt), as charming and self-centered as ever, and home-and-family-oriented Kate still an embarrassment. Ellen means to rush back to New York, where she’s working on a very important profile, but Dad has other plans. Mom’s been diagnosed with cancer, and Dad wants Ellen to move back home to take care of her.
Ellen’s younger brother, Brian (Tom Everett Scott), might be a better candidate for this duty, since his current activity is flunking out of Harvard. Although Dad has shaped his daughter into a hard-headed, driven writer, he’s not perfectly enlightened: Ellen’s the girl and therefore must become the surrogate housekeeper, despite her lack of domestic skills. Ellen resentfully accepts the assignment, moving home despite her mother’s wise protests. This is the first sign that Mom is smarter than she looks, and Dad dumber. That’s the film’s trajectory: Ellen is to learn that Mom is strong and savvy, and that Dad is weak and clueless. That George may also be dallying with one of his students doesn’t make Ellen any more sympathetic to him.
In the first half of the movie, Ellen and Kate become re-acquainted with each other’s weaknesses: The daughter can’t make a presentable lunch for Kate’s circle of do-gooder friends”the Minnies,” they’re called, perhaps in homage to the mouseand the mother has terrible taste in music and literature. Kate drives Ellen to distraction with her Bette Midler tapes and Erma Bombeck books and her aversion to novels that denigrate sweet, domestic women. (Improbably, she finds Jane Austen too tough on such characters.) But as Ellen begins to learn how to cook, clean, and decorate, she bonds with her mother, just in time to watch her deteriorate painfully.
That Kate will die is no surprise. Franklin, who’s best known for the brutal drug-murder movie One False Move, structures the film as a series of flashbacks, narrated by Ellen as she talks to an investigator. Her mother is already dead when the story begins, and police suspect that someone ended her suffering with an overdose of morphine. One True Thing is only nominally a mystery, however. The story’s pivotal fatality is of Ellen’s deeply held but superficial notions of who her parents are.
This is where repeated close-ups of Zellweger’s tight, crabbed face come into play. The actress looks like she’s 25 going on 5, frequently on the verge of tears as almost-uncontrollable emotions seize control of her countenance. One True Thing’s revelations and transformations are unremarkable; no one will be surprised that Ellen starts to become her mother, or that reconciliation follows rage. It’s Zellweger’s expressions that make Ellen’s plight unusually palpable: Her quivering face combines the disillusionment of adulthood with the admiration of youth.
Whereas One True Thing engendered no curiosity about its source, Robert Bierman’s A Merry War sent me straight to the George Orwell novel from which it was adapted. The movie seemed so quaint that I assumed that the Depression-era booklike Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, which defied cinematic adaptation two years agowas a period piece with little contemporary relevance.
The Orwell novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, is a minor work, but it’s not hopelessly dated. Loosely based on Orwell’s own experiences as a struggling writer, the 1936 novel tells the story of aspiring poet Gordon Comstock, who quits a “good” job as an advertising copywriter to work in a Hampstead bookshop while he finishes his major poem, the ironically titled London Pleasures. The writer is buoyed by the support of Ravelston, an independently wealthy socialist whose review, Antichrist, occasionally publishes Gordon’s verse. He’s simultaneously tormented by his relationship with Rosemary, a graphic artist with Gordon’s former employer, who professes to love him but will not sleep with him.
Like Orwell, who wrote evocatively about his and others’ destitution in Down and Out in London and Paris and The Road to Wigan Pier, Gordon is empathetic to the poor but suspicious of socialism, the left’s solution to their plight. He’s exasperated by bourgeois respectability, which for him is embodied by the aspidistra plants in the windows of Hampstead’s boardinghouses, but not sentimental about poverty. When an American journal purchases one of his poems, Gordon uses the $50 check to take Ravelston and Rosemary to dinner, gets spectacularly drunk, and ends up in jail. Upright Hampstead doesn’t condone such behavior, so Gordon ends up working and living in Lambeth, a slum on the wrong side of the Thames.
Alan Plater’s script retains all these events, as well as the story’s ironic kicker, but jettisons the novel’s essence, which is Gordon’s interior monologue. Obviously influenced by Joyce, Orwell set most of the action inside Gordon’s head, where the psychic cost of impoverishment is paid out halfpenny by halfpenny. Unlike Orwell’s best-known novels, Keep the Aspidistra Flying is not concerned with big ideas. It’s a portrait in miniature of one psyche gradually deformed by the disease of empty pockets.
Despite its faithfulness to Orwell’s narrative, the film misses the point entirely. Gangly Richard E. Grant, whose most famous roles include drunken bohemian and ad-agency executive (in Withnail and I and How to Get Ahead in Advertising, respectively), was a natural choice for Gordon, and the newly versatile Helena Bonham Carter plays convincingly against type as the patient Rosemary. But by reducing the novel to its basic events (and excising a few minor episodes to make Gordon more cuddly), Plater has left the movie with nothing but the simplest of ironies. A Merry War (the title comes from a less than essential passage describing the war between the sexes) has little more to say than “Money talks” and “Womencan’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.” Most of the film seems just a little off, but by the time the credits roll while ex-Zombie Colin Blunstone earnestly croons, “You are the tiger burning bright,” it’s clear that Bierman and Plater hope to peddle Orwell’s bitter denunciation of “the money-god” as a romantic comedy.
Like all Jackie Chan movies of the last decade, Rush Hour ends with a blooper reel that depicts the star’s often painful mis-takes. But this one is a little different: Most of the flubs are verbal rather than visual. And that means they primarily belong to chattering co-star Chris Tucker rather than silent-clown Chana ratio that reflects the buddy film’s balance between its two performers. The meaninglessly titled Rush Hour might well have been called Talk Talk.
This is Chan’s first made-in-the-U.S.A. lead role since 1980’s The Big Brawl, but Chan plays his usual character, a Hong Kong police detective. He’s Lee, first seen busting a consignment of stolen Chinese antiquities on a ship in Hong Kong Harbor on the very evening British rule ends. (It was a busy day for action-movie stars, as last week’s Knock Off demonstrated; Chan even dodges a huge crate with a move that echoes Van Damme’s.) The real action, however, is in L.A., where Lee is summoned after the 11-year-old daughter of his friend, Chinese consul Han (Tzi Ma), is kidnapped. Of course, one of the kidnappers is bleached-blond Chinese gangster Sang (Ken Leung), the very villain Lee faced on the ship.
The FBI doesn’t want a foreign cop on its turf, so it asks the LAPD to assign one of its officers to keep Lee busy. The police chief (Philip Baker Hall) maliciously chooses Carter (Tucker), a loudmouth loner who’s just bungled the sting of an explosives dealer (Chris Penn). Predictably, Lee and Carter dislike each other instantly, but become friends as they doggedly pursue the kidnappers. Carter’s nonstop banter keeps getting him in trouble, while Lee regularly flirts with physical calamity, but they’re destined to crack the case the FBI means to prevent them from pursuing.
Like its immediate predecessors in Chan’s filmography, Rush Hour reflects the fact that the 44-year-old actor is no longer quite so agile and energetic as he used to be. Jim Kouf and Ross LaManna’s script gives top billing to Tucker and supplements the physical comedy with culture-clash material: Carter teaches Lee how to dance to Edwin Starr’s “War,” and Lee causes a pool-hall brawl when he emulates Carter’s homeboy greeting of “my nigga.” (Chinese people emulating African-American slang is one of the film’s quickly exhausted comic motifs.) The emphasis on the Carter-Lee relationship reduces every other actor, including such veterans as Tom Wilkinson and Elizabeth Peña, to bit players.
Director Brett Ratner previously worked with Tucker on Money Talks, and he allows the stand-up veteran to fully indulge his neo-minstrel-show act, which consists mostly of bugged-out eyes and screeching falsetto. It’s a one-note performance, which proves tiresome well before the two mismatched cops uncover and defeat the movie’s mysterious Hong Kong crime lord, Juntao. Chan, however, has some dazzling moments, particularly one where he fights two of Juntao’s thugs while repeatedly preventing a large and presumably priceless antique vase from crashing to the ground. Chan’s action-comedy moves may be losing a bit of their kick, but they’re the most reliably amusing element of this half-baked hybrid. CP