City Paper is not for tourists
Richard Linklater’s previous films, Slacker and Dazed and Confused, have featured casts of dozens, but his new Before Sunrise essentially has only two characters. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is an American aimlessly employing a Eurail pass after breaking up with his girlfriend in Madrid; Celine (Julie Delpy) is a French student returning from visiting her grandmother in Budapest. After Jesse meets Celine and convinces her to leave the train with him in Vienna, the two walk the streets for 14 hours, talking.
The subject, of course, is young love, but Sunrise is Linklater’s most grown-up film. The effect is almost Platonic, although the dialogue the film recalls is Symposium, the most lighthearted of Socrates’ chat fests (and one often taken too seriously). Appropriately, Celine is something of a philosopher. When she suggests that love is nearly impossible but “the answer must be in the attempt,” she sounds more convincingly existential than any of Linklater’s lovingly documented slackers—including the ones this Franco-American couple happens upon during its impromptu tour of Viennese bohemia.
As with his previous films, Linklater both wrote and directed, and Sunrise has its share of tiny self-indulgences: Among the weirdos Celine and Jesse meet is Austin rockabillyist (and former Washingtonian) Tex Rubinowitz, playing an Austrian actor touting his role in a goofy avant-garde play; when Jesse describes his dream of making a 24- hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year cableaccess program of real life in real time, he’s clearly describing a Linklaterish project.
The director wisely recruited a co-writer this time, however, and it seems likely that she made a crucial difference. Kim Krizan, who played small parts in Linklater’s previous efforts, may not have been hired simply for a woman’s perspective, but Celine is a richer female role than any Linklater has previously created. Delpy, who’s been principally decorative in such films as Voyager, Killing Zoe, and White, proves more than evenly matched with Hawke, whose Jesse is a boyish seducer guilty of just the sort of “passive-aggressive shit” for which Celine denounces her parents. (He convinces her to leave the train with him by promising to prove that he’s “just as big a loser” as the man she will someday marry and then grow to hate.)
Though not so contrived as Slacker, Sunrise is not exactly slice-of-life: Few chance encounters pack so much revelation. As soon as they board their first tram, Jesse is asking Celine intimate questions and demanding candid answers. Later she ups the ante with a truth-telling game: They pretend to call their best friends on the phone and report on their rapturous impressions of the potential lover they’ve just met. Such conversational gambits may not be realistic, but they are effective; the film is not only less arch than the director’s previous films, but also more artful.
Linklater and Krizan pack a lot into Celine and Jesse, but without overloading them as characters or symbols. Celine, who likes to visit Vienna’s cemetery for the unknown dead and cites the war in Bosnia as something that really pisses her off, says she feels like an old woman in a young woman’s body; Jesse, who says his life has been like “crashing a big party,” counters that he still feels like a kid. This is of course the familiar female/male divide, but it’s also the European/American one, and the two characters manage to embody this schema gracefully. Jesse sometimes seems too clueless—he doesn’t know, for example, what “21:30” means, unlikely ignorance for a man who’s just been from one side of Europe to the other with a Eurail timetable—but Celine has the wit to critique the film’s plot even as she plays it out: “It’s like a male-fantasy thing,” she notes, “meet a French girl on a train and fuck her.”
That Sunrise doesn’t behave like a male-fantasy thing is a tribute to Linklater’s growth, but also to Vienna. The director said he decided to set the film there because it reminded him of Austin, to which to the only reasonable response is: in your dreams, pal. Compared to the liveliness and human scale of Vienna, the Texas of Dazed and Confused seems even more nightmarish in retrospect than it did when the film first unspooled. Those who would deny the civilizing influence of a European grand tour need only see what it’s done for Linklater; Sunrise demonstrates that both the director and his audience benefit from his getting out more.
Oscar Wilde was known for his blithe contrariness and bold self-invention, but the Wilde disciple at the center of A Man of No Importance is neither blithe nor bold. A slightly lugubrious prisoner of lower-middle-class expectations, Alfie Byrne (Albert Finney) is a 60ish bus conductor in early-’60s Dublin. He knows Wilde’s life and work intimately, yet seems to have missed the point. The flamboyant author of The Importance of Being Earnest and A Woman of No Importance, he keeps explaining, transmuted everything into “aaart.”
Alfie does his bit for aaart by reciting poetry to the regular riders on his route, some of whom have previously joined him in his attempts to stage a Wilde play at the local parish hall. The conductor is inspired to try again by the arrival of a new regular passenger, Adele Rice (Tara Fitzgerald), a young beauty who’s just arrived from a small town. Though he thinks of her as virginal, Alfie wants Adele to play the title role in Salomé, Wilde’s account of the sultry dancer who asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Alfie’s notion of Adele turns out to be rather romanticized, but then so are his notions of almost everything.
Alfie is gay, of course, although his expression of this is limited to doing the cooking in the apartment he shares with his sour sister Lily (Brenda Fricker) and sneaking admiring glances at bus driver Robbie Fay (Rufus Sewell), who he calls “Bosie” after Wilde’s pet name for his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. After Alfie’s frequent leading man, butcher Ivor Carney (Michael Gambon), tells the parish priest that Salomé is “salacious” and Adele breaks down at a line that reminds her why she had to leave her hometown, the rehearsals stop and Alfie faces an identity crisis. Taking too seriously Wilde’s crack that “the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it,” he dresses in foppish Wildean finery and heads for a pub where he had previously made eye contact with a handsome young man—and is promptly beaten up.
The thrashing Alfie receives is suspiciously mild, though, as are all the developments in this likable but timid film. After the beating, Alfie’s secret is out, yet few of his friends desert him. “Me hands are innocent of affection,” he reassures Lily after she balks at eating food prepared by a homosexual, and his plight warms her chilly heart. Things turn out fine with Robbie and Adele too, and the troublemaking Carney is last seen taking a slapstick fall.
“Unlike the story of Oscar Wilde,” notes producer Jonathan Cavendish, “the story of Alfie Byrne has a happy and uplifting ending.” Not everyone will be uplifted by Alfie’s acceptance of celibacy, but Man‘s resolution is fairly jolly, perhaps too much so. Barry Devlin’s script trivializes Wilde’s fate, and seems quite content with Alfie’s simplistic interpretations of his literary hero.
Indeed, setting the action in a basically benign 1963 defuses the whole conflict. The forces of complacency are easy targets—Lily is suspicious of spaghetti and neither she nor Carney will admit that they don’t know what fondue is—and Alfie never seems genuinely at risk. Credit fledgling director Suri Krishnamma and his able cast for managing to sustain a consistent, amiable tone while filming a script that jumbles literary homage, working-class melodrama, and one gag straight out of This Is Spinal Tap.
In the early ’70s, when Hollywood was in a fecund funk, major studios used to turn out movies something like Bad Company; one of them, made in 1972 by Robert Benton, even bears the same name. Like this one, those movies were obsessed with corruption, spurned sympathetic lead characters, and ended in disillusionment or despair. The difference? Those movies were interesting.
The 1995 Company was released by Touchstone, Disney’s adult imprint, and it would not be unfair to call it “Mickey Mouse noir.” Though its bleakness is unusual in these days of test-marketed happy endings, the film is as mechanical as any of Bette Midler’s Touchstone vehicles. Director Damian Harris demonstrates the visual flair that marked his almost-promising Deceived and The Rachel Papers, but this is essentially a windup toy. When illuminated, its dark corners hold no surprises; when divulged, its characters’ motivations prove insubstantial.
A tarnished CIA agent with an unfortunately emblematic surname, Nelson Crowe (Laurence Fishburne) is recruited by the Tool Shop, a covert-operations “boutique” whose ex-spook employees now do their dirty tricks for private industry, notably a company run by an infantile zillionaire (Spalding Gray). Crowe’s new boss, Margaret Wells (Ellen Barkin), soon gets his attention by spreading her legs and asking him, mid-coitus, to help her kill the Shop’s proprietor (Frank Langella) so that they can take over. Meanwhile, the agency itself covets the Shop’s covert capabilities, and expects Crowe to deliver the operation to them. These overlapping conspiracies unfold as Crowe and Wells undertake their Shop assignment to buy off a federal judge (David Ogden Stiers) in a pollution case; that task is complicated by the surprising tenaciousness of the judge’s bimbo mistress (Gia Carides).
Adapted by Ross Thomas from his own novel, Company tries to take all the procedural stuff as seriously (and stolidly) as did Clear and Present Danger; though the film ends amid the requisite pools of blood, the action scenes are few and the pacing is excruciatingly deliberate. It includes a few touches that would have been novel in the ’70s—a flash of Barkin’s pubic hair, a matter-of-factly gay operative—but fundamentally the film is as unimaginative as its characterizations. Harris and Thomas simply take the principal performers’ previous specialities and add a dollop of homicidal lunacy: With Fishburne the supercool predator, Barkin the conniving slut, and Gray the hysterical patrician, Company plays like a convention of evil twins.