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The ads and posters for Rob Reiner’s Ghosts of Mississippi defensively pose the question “Is it ever too late to do the right thing?” Appropriating the title of Spike Lee’s masterpiece—one of the rare American movies to deal intelligently with racial conflict—is shameless enough, but the query itself exposes what’s wrong with this soporific docudrama. One way we determine the “rightness” of an action or gesture is by its timeliness; having missed the opportunity to behave honorably and courageously, it’s almost impossible, retroactively, to set matters straight. The right time for this film would have been 32 years ago, when two all-white, all-male Mississippi juries failed to nail white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers, the Jackson-based field secretary of the NAACP. Now that justice has finally been obtained (a racially mixed Mississippi jury convicted Beckwith on Feb. 5, 1994), Ghosts of Mississippi appears to have only one unlikely purpose—snagging a year-end Oscar nomination for Meathead.
Beneath the opening credits, Reiner presents an African-American historical montage: still and moving pictures of slave ships, cotton picking, burning crosses, Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and inevitably, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees, accompanied on the soundtrack by the civil-rights anthem “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” (Even before the story begins, white moviegoers without KKK membership cards in their wallets have been manipulated to the brink of suicidal guilt.) Then Evers’ 1963 assassination is re-enacted, witnessed by his horrified wife Myrlie (Whoopi Goldberg) and their three young children. The two 1964 hung-jury trials of Beckwith (James Woods) are perfunctorily depicted, after which Reiner leaps 25 years forward to Myrlie and attorney Morris Dees attempting to convince Jackson D.A. Ed Peters (Craig T. Nelson) to reopen the case. Halfheartedly, Peters enlists his assistant Bobby DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin) to look into the matter. The Evers murder gradually becomes an obsession for DeLaughter. During the course of tracking down new witnesses, recovering missing evidence, and winning the skeptical Myrlie’s confidence, his shaky marriage to a snippy Southern belle (Virginia Madsen) collapses and he receives several threatening, anonymous phone calls. DeLaughter’s payoff comes when the new jury delivers its guilty verdict, thereby exorcising the titular ghosts.
A prefatory announcement informs us, “This story is true,” which partially explains why it is so uncompelling. Few moviegoers will attend Ghosts of Mississippi without knowing the outcome of the 1994 retrial, so Reiner and screenwriter Lewis Colick’s efforts to build suspense during the investigative and courtroom sequences prove fruitless. The generic star turns fail to compensate for the absence of dramatic tension. Woods, mummified in latex geriatric makeup, gives a performance as pinguid as a Christmas ham; rolling his eyes and baring his yellow teeth, he appears to have taken a wrong turn on the way to Dogpatch. Keeping his shirt on to indicate the righteousness of his character, Baldwin brings standard-issue leading-man determination to a role that offers few opportunities for emoting. The price DeLaughter pays for taking on such an unpopular cause is surprisingly minimal. Apart from his son receiving a bloody nose (spurring a hospital visit that introduces DeLaughter to the fetching, liberal-minded physician who becomes his second wife) and a bogus bomb threat on his home, his quest proceeds with little resistance. As Myrlie, Goldberg is insufferably magniloquent and, unlike Woods, appears to age about 30 minutes between 1963 and 1994. Her pauses between lines are so protracted that one gets the impression she’s composing her dialogue as she utters it. The most self-congratulatory actress since Greer Garson, Goldberg has become so highfalutin that the only future roles suitable for her are Maya Angelou and the Statue of Liberty.
Because Ghosts of Mississippi focuses on its bland white protagonist and is peculiarly uninterested in Evers’ life (he might as well have been a plumber or an athlete for all we learn about his accomplishments), the only pleasure it affords is witnessing the bountiful pile-up of Hollywood cliches. Sources of merriment include the cast’s hilarious hush-puppy accents (Baldwin’s entirely disappears during his summation to the jury) and the rib-crushing indictments of racism (DeLaughter’s father saying “nigger” in front of a black servant, DeLaughter’s guilty realization that he can no longer sing “Dixie” to lull his daughter to sleep, and his conscience-stricken query to his new wife, “Do we even have a single black friend?”). Predictably, none of the film’s beatific African-American characters exhibits a trace of human frailty. Mechanical as a Sunday-school passion play, Reiner’s movie creaks along to its foregone conclusion without even a dramatic climax. Because Beckwith chose not to testify in his own behalf, thus denying us a witness-stand confrontation between the antagonists, the trial sputters out like a short-wicked candle.
If Meathead really wanted to “do the right thing,” he could have made a movie depicting the plight of immigrants, gays, or other currently stigmatized groups, or addressed the present deadlock of race relations in this country. He could have dealt with our president, who, despite his professed sympathy for African-Americans, has betrayed them by signing an inhumane welfare bill and failing to protect affirmative action. Or he might have explored the careers of
ethically problematic black figures like Clarence Thomas, Johnnie Cochran, and Louis Farrakhan, men who have exploited racial tensions for personal gain. Devoid of moral ambiguity and contemporary relevance, Ghosts of Mississippi arrives three decades too late to achieve anything, even the calculated self-aggrandizement of its creators.
Crass, lowbrow Hollywood trash is usually more enjoyable than pseudo-uplifting clunkers like Ghosts of Mississippi, but in the case of Tim Burton’s bloated, feeble Mars Attacks!, it’s difficult to make a choice. The movie opens with some spectacular imagery—hundreds of Martian saucers silently hovering in space, a herd of fiery cattle stampeding down a Kentucky road—then stops dead in its tracks for the next 50 minutes. Screenwriter Jonathan Gems twiddles his thumbs, and ours, unfolding a series of unrelated pre-invasion all-star minidramas set in Washington (featuring president Jack Nicholson, first lady Glenn Close, spin doctor Martin Short, and hawkish Pentagon general Rod Steiger), Las Vegas (Nicholson again as a sleazy real estate developer, Annette Bening as his boozy new-age wife, Danny DeVito as a crude gambler, Jim Brown as a casino greeter, and singer Tom Jones playing himself), Kansas (a white-trash trailer-park clan including slacker Lukas Haas and his half-senile grandma, Sylvia Sidney) and Manhattan (ambitious television newshound couple Sarah Jessica Parker and Michael J. Fox). All of this time-consuming, cartoonishly acted exposition turns out to be aimless, since most of the cast is zapped shortly after the Martian landing.
Burton’s big whammy is that the invaders are not enlightened peace-lovers like the aliens in The Day the Earth Stood Still, but voracious, carnage-crazed monsters determined to annihilate everyone and everything (the Capitol, Parliament, the Taj Mahal, Mount Rushmore, Easter Island) they encounter. By the fadeout, what’s left of humanity is ultimately saved by the least likely earthlings, armed with the ultimate weapon—Slim Whitman’s recording of “Indian Love Call.”
Connoisseurs of special effects will not be disappointed by Industrial Light and Magic’s elaborate animations, though these days video games and CD-ROMs offer equally impressive visuals along with the added pleasures of interactivity. Burton’s biggest blunder is applying such lavish technology to a story of epic mindlessness. The no-budget ’50s commie-scare sci-fi movies Mars Attacks! evokes (Invasion U.S.A., Robot Monster, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, and Plan 9 From Outer Space by Ed Wood, the subject of Burton’s recent biopic) are amusing because of their surrealistic cheesiness, with absurdly unconvincing visual effects achieved by using hubcaps, TV rabbit ears, vacuum cleaner tubing, and other domestic detritus. Wasting $70 million on a story even dumber than those grade-Z cheapies—rather than building on more challenging sci-fi models like Blade Runner, Alien, or Close Encounters of the Third Kind—is senseless and, ultimately, depressing.
If only the rapacious Martians enjoyed their destructive rampage as much as, say, Joe Dante’s gremlins or the randy teenagers boogeying in the embers at the end of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Mars Attacks! would be less burdensome to sit through. Lacking humor, magic, suspense, and gleeful nihilism, the film nevertheless supplies a few guilty pleasures. Any movie in which Close is crushed by a chandelier and DeVito blows up can’t be all bad, and the chihuahua head that alien scientists graft onto Parker’s body considerably improves her appearance. One sequence actually achieves a fleeting moment of poetry. Disguised as a Vampiralike hooker, a lascivious Martian girl (Lisa Marie) vamps Short into granting her access to the White House. Marie’s strange, robotic choreography hints at what the film might have been had Burton attempted to create something fresh instead of recycling old formulas.
Clumsily paced and wavering uncertainly between satire and thriller, Mars Attacks! demonstrates that Burton has lost the wide-eyed, childlike vision that informed Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands. His growing preoccupation with pop sediment in his Batman pictures and Ed Wood has led him to this overproduced, mirthless folly. The movie’s most sobering revelation comes in the closing credits. Awarded 26th billing for his walk-on as a doctor is filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski, the Polish-born creator of some of the most original and challenging films of the past three decades, including Deep End (1970) and Moonlighting (1982). Skolimowski has been unable to secure financing for an English-language feature since 1990, while Burton had no difficulty obtaining a king’s ransom for this jerry-built extravaganza inspired by a 1962 series of Topps trading cards. Following the alien invasion, Bening muses, “Maybe we should all be destroyed. The human race doesn’t deserve to live.” In a world governed by such skewed priorities, it’s hard not to root for the Martians.