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Stylistically, Shine more than fulfills the promise of its title. Australian director Scott Hicks’ dynamic biopic, based on the troubled life of concert pianist David Helfgott, inventively deploys the vocabulary of filmmaking. Editor Pip Karmel fuses strikingly composed images with a vibrant soundtrack to create a propulsive narrative that refuses to allow viewers to catch a second wind until the fadeout. Only when that restorative shot of oxygen hits the brain does it become clear that, for all its formal accomplishment, Shine is yet another shallow, feel-good movie—Glenn Gould as Rain Man.
The picture begins with fortyish David (Geoffrey Rush, one of three expressive actors who play Helfgott at difference ages) stumbling into a bar and disturbing its staff with his compulsive nattering, a bewildering jumble of autobiographical and philosophical fragments. The bar’s owner, Sylvia (Sonia Todd), feels sorry for him and drives him back to the halfway house where he resides. Here, Hicks begins the explanatory flashback that constitutes two-thirds of the narrative.
Young David (Alex Rafalowicz) is a child-prodigy pianist driven by his embittered father Peter (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a Polish-Jewish refugee who emigrated to Australia after losing most of his family in the Holocaust. A frustrated musician himself, Peter enters his son in local classical piano contests, then places him in the hands of a more accomplished teacher. In his teens, adolescent David (Noah Taylor) wins national competitions and is awarded a scholarship to study in America. Unwilling to split up what remains of his family, tyrannical Peter forbids his son to accept this opportunity.
Several years later, David is offered another scholarship to study at London’s Royal College of Music and, encouraged by a sympathetic new friend, elderly writer Katharine Susannah Prichard (Googie Withers), defies his father’s will. Enraged, Peter disowns his son and burns the scrapbooks documenting David’s career. In England, without friends or family, the teenager throws himself into his studies under the tutelage of a supportive professor (John Gielgud). Just before performing Rachmaninoff’s fiendishly demanding “Piano Concerto No. 3” for his peers, Peter learns of Katherine’s death. Emotionally depleted, he executes the piece brilliantly, then suffers an onstage nervous breakdown. Returning to Australia, David is institutionalized and receives electroshock treatments. His doctors forbid him to play the piano, fearing the stimulation will trigger further attacks.
At this point, Hicks comes full circle to the opening sequence. Sylvia encourages him to resume performing in her establishment to the acclaim of her patrons. A chance encounter with Gillian (Lynn Redgrave), a free-spirited astrologer, bolsters David’s recovery, helping him make peace with his demons and set out on a new life of emotional and artistic fulfillment.
With its echoes of The Seventh Veil, Five Easy Pieces, and The Competition, Shine dramatizes the punishing stress of classical piano contests. The sequence depicting David’s breakdown is brilliantly executed, with supercharged editing and sonic dislocations capturing the young musician’s moment of triumph and nullification. But even the film’s calmest passages are formally inspired. In every frame of Shine, Hicks displays a formidable technique that directors twice his age must surely envy.
Too bad such virtuoso filmmaking has been squandered on Jan Sardi’s undernourished screenplay. Concerned with speed and emotional manipulation at the expense of depth and substance, Shine ignores or glosses over most of the provocative questions it raises. We learn almost nothing of David’s treatment following his breakdown—the strategies of his doctors, the therapeutic methods they employ, even how long it takes. (The age difference between Taylor and Rush suggests that David is institutionalized for more than a decade.) Sardi’s stereotypical notion of character development restricts us to a perfunctory understanding of Peter and David. The father is a sketchy fairy-tale monster of paternal oppression and the son a cracked, holy innocent whose unsullied spirit instantly wins the compassion of everyone he encounters. (Implausibly, David’s aberrant behavior—his mercurial free-association monologues, his annoying penchants for trashing apartments, chain-smoking, and copping feels of women’s breasts—never occasions a single hostile response.)
The film’s intellectual vacuousness become fully apparent in the blithering new-age affirmation of its final reel, where crystals, computer-generated horoscopes, and a deus ex femina’s unquestioning love bring forth effortless redemption. In accordance with the 1989 international secret pact proscribing filmmakers from releasing works with melancholy endings, Shine buries its considerable potential behind the rictus of a Smiley Face. Isn’t there enough pleasure in life to allow audiences to survive a few moments of cinematic sadness?
Moviegoers searching for more convincing uplift could do much worse than Michael Hoffman’s romantic comedy, One Fine Day. Its antagonists-fall-in-love formula was creaky in the Doris Day-Rock Hudson era, and screenwriters Terrell Seltzer and Ellen (spawn of Neil) Simon’s efforts to update it (cellular phones, day-care centers) are largely cosmetic. But watching attractive, appealing characters opening their hearts to each other is always comforting, and these days Hollywood would be hard-pressed to come up with a more engaging couple than Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney.
Melanie Parker (Pfeiffer) is a divorced Manhattan architect struggling to balance career ambitions and the single parenting of her young son. Jack Taylor (Clooney), also divorced, is a political columnist about to break a major City Hall scandal when his ex-wife unexpectedly saddles him with the care of their daughter. The pair meet cute when their 5-year-olds arrive too late for a school-sponsored Circle Line cruise. Despite initial hostilities, both face critical work challenges and agree to take turns caring for their beanbag children. As the title indicates, the frenetic day turns out to be personally and professionally triumphant for all concerned.
The moment we lock eyes on Melanie and Jack, we realize they are too good-looking, quick-witted, charming, and lovelorn to fall for anybody but each another. With the movie’s outcome predestined, its success depends entirely on its stars. Recovering from a brace of artistic misfires (Up Close and Personal and Dangerous Minds) that sapped her radiant looks and generous spirit, Pfeiffer returns to form in a spunky, unaffected performance. Clooney, whose big-screen potential could not be determined from his participation in the trashy From Dusk Till Dawn, is equally winning, projecting a gentle self-assurance that provides welcome relief from the testosterone-fueled posturing of his Hollywood rivals. These days, stars with powerful box-office cachet (Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise, Sandra Bullock) quickly become glaceed abstractions of themselves, as though excessive exposure to the camera calcifies their bodies and souls. But for all of their photogenic magnetism, Pfeiffer and Clooney have thus far remained recognizably human, convincingly spontaneous in their reactions and interactions. This conventional, vanilla vehicle neither strains nor tests their talents, but one leaves the theater pleased to have spent some time in their presence.
There’s little point trying to analyze fluff like One Fine Day. In the gassy press material, producer Lynda Obst calls it “a parable, a healing solution for the gender wars that we’ve all been living through.” (In the days when Hollywood knew how to turn out smart, funny romantic comedies like The Shop Around the Corner and The Philadelphia Story, filmmakers were content to be entertainers, and much too sensible to regard themselves as allegorists and social physicians.) True, the screenplay does touch lightly on some contemporary concerns—the juggling acts of working parents, the obsessiveness of professional women facing the consequences of “having it all,” the anxiety men feel in an era of gender realignments—but these are merely frosting on a generic cake.
Apart from its players, what makes the movie enjoyable, if unmemorable, are its genial running jokes (magically, Melanie’s purse contains the solution to every emergency), its wry acknowledgment of ’90s urban self-centeredness (Melanie’s mother can’t take care of her grandson because she’s being “exfoliated” at Elizabeth Arden), and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton’s views of New York (Rockefeller Center, Central Park, Serendipity), which, for once, balance the city’s glamour and grittiness. Although One Fine Day is sufficiently chaste to attend with your missionary aunt and overstays its welcome—after Melanie and Jack admit their mutual admiration, a cumbersome late-arriving complication involving her rock drummer ex-husband drags things out—director Hoffman manages to keep this soap bubble afloat. As accompaniment to popcorn, One Fine Day is as refreshing as, and no more cloying than, a fountain Coke.