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If you haven’t seen actor-writer-director Albert Brooks’ early movies, you’ll probably enjoy Mother, a breezy, featherweight Oedipal comedy. But if you’ve experienced the brainy, biting wit of his first three pictures, you’ll join me in lamenting the blandness of his latest effort.

Brooks stars as fortyish John Henderson, a twice-divorced Los Angeles sci-fi novelist drawn to women who lack faith in him. Concluding that his romantic failures stem from his strained relationship with his widowed mother, Beatrice (Debbie Reynolds), he embarks upon “The Experiment.” Overcoming Beatrice’s resistance, he moves back home to Sausalito in order to get to the root of his problems with women. Living together, mother and son work through personal tensions, break down lifelong barriers, and achieve emotional and creative regenerations.

The screenplay, written by Brooks and his longtime collaborator, Monica Johnson, is thinly amusing. Long sequences are devoted to wranglings about food, a fertile if underexplored comedic subject. Beatrice pinches pennies by buying off-brand comestibles (cheese, sherbet) in vast quantities, which she keeps long beyond their shelf lives. Trendy John, devoted to fancy produce and designer preserves, chokes on the musty meals she dishes up. They also lock horns over Beatrice’s hunger for approval from strangers, notably in a shopping-mall sequence featuring mother-son confrontations in Victoria’s Secret and the Gap. The family psychodrama intensifies during visits from Jeff (Rob Morrow), John’s favored, prosperous, sports-agent kid brother, and Charles (Peter White), Beatrice’s gentleman friend.

Starting in the mid-’70s, Brooks built his career by ridiculing the insecurity and materialism of the emerging male yuppie. His comedy album A Star Is Bought parodied show-biz unscrupulousness, a theme he refined in the sharp-edged short films he contributed to Saturday Night Live’s first season. In Real Life (1979), his feature debut, he plays a sleazy, opportunistic filmmaker who invades, and destroys, the lives of the middle-class family he’s documenting—a frontal assault on the PBS miniseries An American Family. Two years later, he created a bitter masterpiece—Modern Romance—in which he stars as a neurotic, obnoxious film editor obsessed with recapturing his exasperated former girlfriend. (No male who has ever been spurned can watch the snaky, self-deluded maneuverings of Brooks’ protagonist without recognizing something of his own narcissism and shame.) 1985’s Lost in America introduced yet another Brooks comic monster—a vain, anxious, pampered ad executive who self-righteously quits his job and, with his put-upon wife, sets off in a Winnebago on a disastrous Kerouackian quest to discover “the real America.” In all three films Brooks risked alienating audiences by aiming satirical darts at the disagreeable characters he played. Everything that Brooks, as writer-director, deplored—egotism, cowardice, self-deception—was embodied by Brooks the performer.

Six years passed before Brooks was able to secure financing for another project, during which Hollywood was being Ovitzed and Eisnered toward its current state of imbecility. (How many more wheezy TV sitcom remakes and parables about angels can this nation endure before drool cups are installed in theater seats?) In 1991, he returned with Defending Your Life, a toothless afterlife courtroom fantasy in which, for the first time, Brooks mugged for audience sympathy and was rewarded with the prospect of spending eternity in heaven with Meryl Streep (a strong argument for choosing solitude in hell). Though passably diverting, Defending Your Life was a craven, career-saving betrayal of Brooks’ talent; he was starting to behave like one of his own fainthearted characters.

Had Brooks shot Mother in his glory days, he would have maliciously turned the screws on John Henderson, depicting him as a middle-aged whiner determined to project blame for his personal failures onto his mother. But once again, like an avid puppy, he woos our approval—the very thing he criticizes Beatrice for in the mall sequence. We’re encouraged to view him as an undeserving victim, especially in the scenes where he competes with Jeff for maternal affection. (Morrow, made up to resemble, and directed to act like, asinine Adam Sandler, tips the scales in John’s balance.) The film’s saving grace is Reynolds’ resourceful performance. Cast against perky type, she puts fresh spins on her dialogue, neatly sidestepping the monster-mother implications of her initial scenes, and takes on substance as Beatrice’s inner life is gradually revealed. Although she’s saddled with some demeaning third-rate material—a tiresome videophone running joke, an out-of-character moment in which she curses in a supermarket, an implausible cheap quip in which she says of her male escort, “We’re not intimate. We just have sex together”—Reynolds gives a richer, shrewder, more rounded performance than the screenplay provides or deserves.

I can’t say I minded sitting through Mother, though John’s fade-out double affirmation is rather rebarbative. But it left me depressed at the diminution of Brooks’ vision. With his corrosive wit neutralized, mainstream filmmaking has lost its last, most trenchant ironist, abandoning what little remains of American screen comedy to seraphims, ‘toons, and SNL dropouts. A star is bought, indeed.

Elephantine, humorless, and imperially detached from its subject, Evita is nevertheless worth seeing for Alan Parker’s flamboyant direction, a combination of virtuoso technique and military strategy. The Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice pop-opera biography of Argentine icon Eva Perón, which initially surfaced as a 1976 concept album, passed through the hands of 10 filmmakers before reaching Parker, who has fused the bombastic, fascistic visual styles of Sergei Eisenstein and Leni Riefenstahl with the production-number geometrics of Busby Berkeley and Julien Temple to create a jaw-dropping extravaganza.

Immeasurably abetted by production designer Brian Morris, costume designer Penny Rose, and cinematographer Darius Khondji, Parker imagines Perón’s life as a series of vast, sweeping tapestries. Shooting in locations and studios in Buenos Aires, Budapest, and London, he presents two hours and 10 minutes of ravishing images—political demonstrations, civil uprisings, and a host of ceremonial events. Not since David Lean’s floruit have we been invited to wallow in such pageantry. In an era when even the most expensive movies are visually impoverished, and spectacle is generated by computer technology, Evita’s magisterial style is not to be casually dismissed.

But the disproportion between the film’s prodigious form and puny content makes it something of an aberration, like a mammoth conservatory erected to house a single bonsai tree. Parker and Oliver Stone’s episodic screenplay, which sketchily chronicles Perón’s life, from her impoverished childhood through her self-constructed apotheosis as her nation’s saint to her death at 33, offers no insight into its controversial protagonist. Forty-five years after Evita’s death, it’s not unreasonable to expect something more edifying than bare facts, even in a musical.

Webber and Rice’s ambition to transform Perón’s life into opera—all the dialogue, apart from a few ejaculations, is sung—exceeds their meager talents. Praising Evita as Webber’s most accomplished score is a backhanded compliment, rather like singling out Andie MacDowell’s most expressive performance. The South American setting prevents him from indulging in his worst florid excesses (Cats’ Puccini plagiarisms, The Phantom of the Opera’s operetta grandiosity), an uncharacteristic restraint neutralized by the composer’s overblown arrangements, written for what seem like massed symphony orchestras intermittently (and hilariously) punctuated by electric-guitar power chords. Rice’s maladroit lyrics, which sound clumsily translated from Esperanto or Ebonics, wouldn’t pass muster in a high-school spring revue. Singlehandedly, and hamfistedly, he dynamites a century of songwriting craft, polished to an art form by Lorenz Hart, Yip Harburg, Johnny Mercer, and other master lyricists. Anyone with an ear for poetic language will cringe at the forced rhymes, non sequiturs, anachronisms, and mismatched verbal and musical accents. (The tongue-tripping title of one of the major numbers, “High Flying, Adored,” exposes Rice’s obliviousness to euphony.) It’s often painful to listen to the cast’s heroic attempts to make something intelligible of this shotgun wedding of notes and syllables.

Curious moviegoers will doubtless come to Evita wondering whether Madonna’s performance in the title role will redeem her hitherto catastrophic acting career. The answer is a qualified yes. Compensating for a lack of innate musicality, she has applied herself with a vengeance, submitting to extensive coaching to curb her shrillness, sharpen her diction, and expand her vocal range. Webber’s music is, at best, uninspired, but it’s not easy to sing, and Madonna meets its demands admirably. Vocalizing throughout the film, she’s spared the task of delivering dialogue, the least of her dramatic skills, and visually emotes with competence, if not distinction. Her most impressive contributions come in two dance sequences, where her lithe, athletic body and dogged determination achieve a true triumph of the will. But Gerry Hambling’s scissors-happy, music-video editing detracts from her terpsichorean achievements, pointlessly fragmenting what could have been dynamic set pieces.

Like Evita, Madonna is a phenomenon of media celebrity who has transformed herself from a transgressive tart into what her press kit modestly calls “a Renaissance woman in the truest sense of the term.” The most disappointing aspect of her performance is her inability to fuse her own bottomless craving for adulation with that of her character. Throughout the film, Madonna’s Evita is juicelessly, serenely ladylike; she has even affected an inexplicable English accent for the role, which she has sustained while flacking for the movie in endless television interviews. (Turning British appears to be a new celebrity virus. Last week, on The Charlie Rose Show, Whoopie Goldberg punctuated an hour’s worth of self-regarding palaver with “sawt off” and “ewe noh.”) Like a student hoping that sheer perseverance will overcome a lack of native intelligence, Madonna has done her homework well enough to earn a respectable grade, but effort without intuition is insufficient to achieve artistic excellence. Comparing her earnest, flat deathbed scene with Andrea Corr’s eloquent, wordless 90-second cameo as Juan Perón’s discarded mistress demonstrates the difference between hard work and inspiration. Stripped of her bustier, lip mole, and defiant brassiness, the revamped (and devamped) Madonna is a middling actress but no longer a star.

The film’s true stellar performance is Antonio Banderas’ narrator, Ché. (No, not that Che—another of the screenplay’s infelicities.) Since his breakthrough appearances in Pedro Almódovar’s films, Banderas has been slowly congealing into another slice of Hollywood beefcake. His work in Evita resurrects him as an artist. In every shot, he radiates the spontaneous vitality and sexual magnetism that his pallid colleague vainly labors to achieve. Technically, his voice is less assured than Madonna’s, but he sings with urgency and passion. (His Spanish accent obscures some of Rice’s lyrics, but that’s more blessing than loss.) Jonathan Pryce, wearing what appears to be one of Al Jolson’s old blackface wigs, makes what little he can of the thankless Juan Perón role, but rooster-faced Jimmy Nail has some telling moments as Evita’s first lover, crooner Agustín Magaldi, delivering several versions of one of the score’s more effective numbers, the intentionally corny tango pastiche “On This Night of a Thousand Stars.” There’s nothing to say about the remainder of the huge ensemble, a mob anonymously cast as “the people.” They march, cheer, jeer, and weep on cue, like Eisenstein’s masses, Riefenstahl’s storm troopers, and Berkeley’s chorines. They exist only to be manipulated, and Parker has no more interest in them than he does in what makes Evita tick.

Although emotionally disengaged, historically unenlightening, and ponderously paced—by the end, your eyes will probably be sore from all the spectacle and your ears ringing from the Dolby Digital soundtrack—Evita has considerably more to offer than the brain candy currently clogging other screens. Even if you hate it, you’ll feel you’ve gotten your money’s worth. CP