For the last decade, the Hollywood ideal has been the blockbuster with a sense of humor, exemplified by the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard series. Titanic, however, offers a new formula: the blockbuster with heart. Experienced hacks must think alike, because director Harold Becker and star Bruce Willis’ Mercury Rising also marries spectacle and sentiment.
The film opens with an instant-action prelude, a feature of the Lethal/Die flicks. Some right-wing militiamen have barricaded themselves in a small-town bank, and among them is undercover FBI agent Art Jeffries (Willis). Art is trying to prevent a violent confrontation, mostly to save the lives of the militia leader’s two teenage sons, who are—by Art and Hollywood’s code—too young to die. The agent’s superiors insist on bursting in, though, and the two boys are caught in a hail of federal bullets. This prelude establishes both Art’s post-Waco sensitivity and the brutal efficiency of his Washington bosses.
Art slugs the guy who ordered the attack, leading to his being demoted to routine cases. Back in his home base of Chicago—as usual in Hollywood movies, a symbol of heartland wholesomeness—the agent’s first assignment is the disappearance of autistic 9-year-old Simon (Miko Hughes), whose parents have just been murdered. Art quickly finds the kid and determines that the case is anything but routine. As he gradually discovers, Simon was the real target of the assassins, who work for the super-secret federal snoops at the National Security Agency. Simon, a puzzle savant, has cracked the NSA’s ballyhooed new code, Mercury. Although the withdrawn boy is hardly capable of discussing his accomplishment, code-keeper Lt. Col. Nicholas Kudrow (Alec Baldwin, as dislikable as ever) has ordered Simon killed.
What follows is almost entirely typical. Art is soon cut off from his friends and colleagues as the NSA portrays him as a rogue agent. While dodging bullets and CTA trains, Art can depend only on one FBI pal—a good-hearted African-American who Shouldn’t Be Doing This—and a young woman he corrals as Simon’s part-time babysitter. Despite the impossible odds, Art acts with impunity, ultimately hopping a flight to decadent, unfeeling Washington to confront Kudrow at his Georgetown manse, where he mocks the unctuous colonel’s effete lifestyle by smashing up his wine cellar. (Extolling American teamwork, Baldwin’s Kudrow sounds like he’s reciting leftover dialogue from Glengarry Glen Ross.) Even John Barry’s score is utterly familiar, sometimes because he’s recycling his own greatest hits and sometimes because he’s mimicking Philip Glass.
The principal wrinkle in Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal’s script (adapted from Ryne Douglas Pearson’s novel Simple Simon) is Art’s crypto-paternal relationship with Simon. Throwing an afflicted kid into a thriller may simply combine two Hollywood recipes, but the autistic boy does more than pull heartstrings. He’s also a pain in the ass. As usual in such Hollywood portrayals of affliction, Simon’s condition confers special attributes (in this case, perfect balance). Still, rather than being a tough little man under fire, Simon is irritating, oblivious, and unreliable. Indomitable regular guy Art may be a fantasy, but in depicting an autistic boy, Mercury Rising comes closer to a believable 9-year-old than such movies usually do.
Most of I Think I Do takes place during the three days that a group of George Washington University alumni pals reunite in Washington for the wedding of two of their cohorts, Carol (Lauren Velez) and Matt (Jamie Harrold). Rather than disrupt the near-classical unity of this scenario with an awkward flashback, writer-director Brian Sloan instead opens the film with an awkward prologue. Set during three holidays some five years earlier, the foreword ends on Valentine’s Day, as an ambiguous, ambivalent romance goes unconsummated. The thwarted lovers are not Carol and Matt, however, but the film’s real central couple, Bob (Alexis Arquette) and Brendan (Christian Maelen).
Sloan, who grew up in Washington, previously attracted attention with Pool Days, a two-character short film about a gay high-schooler’s erotic obsession. (It was distributed commercially in a three-film omnibus, “Boys Life.”) Here the director graduates to college and beyond (and to a full-length feature) with a project he describes as a ’90s screwball comedy. Bob’s unrequited love for straight roommate Brendan was a major trauma for the college student, but five years later he’s much more secure. A successful soap-opera scripter, Bob arrives at the wedding with his actor lover, a hunky simpleton with the stage name Sterling Scott (Tuc Watkins, an actual soap-opera veteran). The only complication is that Bob is convinced Brendan is flirting with him.
Sloan’s scenario updates the ’30s screwball style with a few contemporary twists: Not only is the late-blooming Brendan now willing to declare his love for Bob, but Sterling is inspired by the wedding preparations to ask Bob for a lifetime commitment. On the heterosexual front, old flame Sarah (Marianne Hagan) plans to reignite her relationship with Brendan, Carol’s divorced parents can’t suppress their hostility long enough for their daughter to walk down the aisle, and Carol and Matt’s relationship is severely tested by their wedding. There are also plenty of marijuana giggles, ironic Partridge Family tunes, and a feisty, truth-telling aunt (played by no less than Marni Nixon, who in the ’50s and ’60s dubbed singing parts for such actresses as Jean Kerr, Natalie Wood, and Audrey Hepburn).
I Think I Do’s scenario may still be controversial in some circles, but its characterizations and dialogue are entirely conventional; the movie plays like a cross between an American sit-com, a gay-friendly British sex farce, and a Washington travelogue. (The film features well-known local edifices, apparently to camouflage the fact that most of it was actually shot in the New York area.) The most audacious thing Sloan did was “steal” some train scenes without Amtrak’s permission.
The movie, of course, isn’t supposed to be audacious. It’s meant to be ingratiating and amusing, which to a modest degree it is, although probably only to those who identify closely with the era, the milieu, or the situation. Sloan can comfort himself that his film would be been more convincing with more authoritative performances; his actors can retort that they would have seemed more compelling if provided with sharper lines. Both should have known better, though, than to offer the great “deduction for joint filing” as a reason for Carol and Matt to wed.