There’s a scene in Love and Other Catastrophes, an Australian campus sex comedy, where the members of a film class rebel at their professor’s announcement that he’ll spend the semester discussing Alfred Hitchcock. Director Emma-Kate Croghan cuts to three groups of students, each dressed to reveal their own choice for cinema’s greatest master: Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, or Woody Allen. That these are the four models available to film students at Melbourne University is not encouraging. But it suits Croghan just fine: Merely by devising this Annie Hall-style aside, she’s indicated that Allen is her inspiration.
Made for $30,000 by the then-23-year-old director, Love and Other Catastrophes is more promise than fulfillment. Still, it has a blithe spirit and engaging characters, which are enough to sustain its 79-minute running time. And if its portrayal of collegiate Australia as a land of polymorphous pleasure and acceptance isn’t entirely convincing, it is altogether congenial.
The film revolves around two roommates who are seeking a third in order to cut their expenses. Alice (Alice Garner) works at a campus coffee bar while procrastinating on her thesis about Doris Day’s underappreciated feminist qualities (based primarily on Day’s whip-cracking role in Calamity Jane). Mia (Frances O’Connor) has just decided to switch departments, only to find she can’t do so without first satisfying several bureaucratic edicts, including paying off some hefty library fines.
Though both actresses are charming, it’s Alice who’s supposed to be the nice one, too shy and too particular to land a boyfriend. (She won’t accept a lover who isn’t left-handed, honest, and enamored of the same movies she loves.) She develops an interest in Ari (Matthew Dyktynski), a well-built classics student and part-time hustler. (Ari services only female clients, an odd note in a film as open to gayness as this one.) It’s obvious, however, that Alice is meant for Michael (Matt Day), a well-meaning med student who just happens to be looking for a new place to live.
The effervescent but manipulative Mia, meanwhile, takes her girlfriend Danni (Radha Mitchell) for granted, running the risk that Danni will divert her affection to her not-so-secret admirer Savita (Suzi Dougherty). In fact, after Mia shakes down Danni for the money to pay those fines, the two do split. It doesn’t seem likely, however, that Mia will be all alone after the climactic party that properly sorts out all the lovers with a game in which the participants reveal their three favorite movies. The list that matters is Alice’s: Calamity Jane, Meet Me in St. Louis, and The Purple Rose of Cairo.
Those are all American films, of course. Croghan is a red-diaper baby who recalls that one of her first phrases was “U.S. bases out,” but the director is as devoted to the good old American days as her mentor. Love and Other Catastrophes opens with old-timey jazz that would warm Allen’s heart, and supplements its Oz-rock score with the Cardigans’ lounge-rock, the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning,” and a punk arrangement of “Let’s Fall in Love.” Like the ’30s screwball-comedy directors she admires, Croghan invents a refuge from everyday life where the characters can fix their attention on the pursuit of romance and whereas the slightly pompous Ari explains to Michaelomnia vincit amor.
Scripted by Croghan, Yael Bergman, and Helen Bandis, Love and Other Catastrophes depicts a sex- and drug-enraptured utopia that could hardly have been imagined in the ’30s: Neither Ari nor Michael blinks when one of two guys making out in a men’s room stall begs a coin to buy a condom, and the final alignment of lovers involves a giggly, pot-fueled chat session. This may not be everyone’s idea of paradise, but the fresh-faced cast (especially O’Connor and Garner) are ingratiating even when the movie isn’t. Croghan punctuates her story with quotations from Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, Hitchcock, and others, but the film’s moral might be one that would appeal to Allen’s Depression-era musical taste: A pretty girl is like a melody.
Perhaps reconsidering his defection from the consistently tiresome but reliably profitable Batman series, Val Kilmer may think he has bought into another franchise with The Saint. After all, the series has done well by actors in the past, providing 10 years of TV-series employment for Roger Moore in the ’60s, and nine films for George Sanders in the ’30s and ’40s. (In the last four of those, Sanders played the Falcon, the same role with a different name, after the producers fell out with the character’s creator, Leslie Charteris.) Australian director Phillip Noyce’s update of The Saint, however, is about as likely to launch a dynasty as Alec Baldwin’s incarnation of The Shadow.
Things start, oddly enough, with a Batmanlike origin story for our hero, the youthful ward of an improbably photogenic Catholic orphanage somewhere in the mysterious East. This sequence is the invention of scripters Jonathan Hensleigh and Wesley Strick; Charteris never recounted the early years or motivation of his character. In Hensleigh and Strick’s version, the pre-pubescent Simon Templar is already a willful mastermind and confident trickster; he escapes from the orphanage but can’t save his 10-year-old true love, who falls to her death as she tries to kiss him goodbye.
This preposterous prelude, it turns out, is a recurring dream that torments the Saint. By day, he’s the coolest operator around, the whole Mission: Impossible team embodied in one ghostly mercenary; at night, however, he’s haunted by this defining moment. The Saint wakes, quaking and sweating: Kilmer has just arrived on screen, and already he looks like a chump.
It doesn’t get any better for the movie or the actor, who at least this time has a narrative rationale for the playful mélange of accents and personae he last used in The Island of Doctor Moreau. The Saint is a master of disguise, you see, capable of posing as numerous men during one high-tech B&E at the headquarters of power-mad Moscow demagogue Ivan Tretiak (Croatian film veteran Rade Serbedzija). Still, the super scoundrel’s repertoire is a little familiar: When Tretiak subsequently hires the Saint to steal the formula for cold fusion from Oxford-based scientist Emma Russell (Elizabeth Shue), the thief decides to seduce her in the person of a long-haired, leather-trousered poet. The phony poet doesn’t have to ask Russell to light his fire for this pose to suggest Kilmer’s role in The Doorsespecially since there was a bit of Jim Morrison in his Doctor Moreau freakout as well.
The movie’s plot is the usual mix of tedium (lots of laptop derring-do) and paranoia. Hensleigh and Strick have transplanted a hoary American legendthat the energy companies are hoarding oil to drive up pricesto the crisis-gripped Russia of (a title explains) “tomorrow.” Tretiak is not merely stockpiling petroleum, he’s got the stuff in his own capacious basement, waiting for enough of his hapless countrymen to freeze to death. Then the government will collapse, and he’ll take over. Meanwhile, he delivers rousing Slavophile speeches while his son Ilya (Valery Nikolaev) and his cronies do the dirty work.
It’s hardly worth thinking about how this fits into Tretiak’s plan, but the villain hears that Russell has cracked the cold-fusion puzzle, which potentially will provide all the world’s energy needs for a pittance. He hires the Saint to steal the formula from Russell, played by Shue as if she had the title role in Gidget Discovers Cold Fusion. But the heart of the implacable loner is melted by his night with Russell, and the two become lovers and allies. As they’re pursued through Moscow, the Saint devises a plan to save them, Russia, and the world. Too bad he can’t do anything about the movie.
Noyce has never again made a film as good as his debut, Newsfront, but he’s done competent work on such routine Hollywood thrillers as Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. As already demonstrated with Sliver, however, he’s lost when presented with trendy decadence. His vision of Moscow’s future, where bar patrons bet on real rat races and dissidents sell art in the sewers, is enough to make viewers wish they were back in Gotham City. It might even be enough to make Kilmer wish he were back working for Batman Forever director Joel Schumacher.CP