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Grim Expectations-- or how Hollywood has butchered yet another literary classic.

By Zak Weisfeld

FEBRUARY 9, 1998:  There are certain dark periods on the movie calendar—certain inauspicious dates when all sensible people who don't have a job writing movie reviews should avoid the theater like the Daytime Emmy Awards. One of these dead zones occurs in the beginning of fall, when the big summer action movies are slowly migrating from the screens and the Oscar hopefuls have yet to arrive in their theatrical wintering grounds. And while generally the fare is grim, there are rare sightings of quality—a interesting thriller, a mildly intelligent comedy.

But there is another time, a time so dark, so horrible, that some say it is bad luck to even speak of it. Since I've already been bilked for my six bucks, however, let me say its name—the last weekend in January.

This is a time when Hollywood releases is foulest creations, movies so bad, so hideously misshapen that the negatives, the prints, the script, every scrap of evidence of their existence should be gathered into a pile and doused with gasoline. And atop this pile should be laid the still-living bodies of every person even remotely involved with the film. Then, before any of the participants have a chance to pass out from inhaling the heady fumes of high-octane gasoline, the whole misbegotten mess should set alight. As a final, and desperately necessary humiliation, footage of this event should be broadcast on Fox.

To some of you this will probably sound a little harsh. You obviously haven't seen Great Expectations.

I thought I had my expectations suitably low. But despite a title that is just begging for bad reviews, an actor I can't stand, and a story I didn't care much about, I still managed to be shocked by just how bad Great Expectations was.

Ostensibly based on a novel by Charles Dickens, Great Expectations was pawned off in its previews as a romance. On the one hand there's a poor but passionate painter, Finn (played by mouth-breathing hunk Ethan Hawke) and on the other there's the distant, snobby rich girl, Estella (played by blank-eyed sometime-model Gwyneth Paltrow). In a series of breathtakingly senseless coincidences, the two eventually find each other, but not until the audience is almost two hours beyond giving a damn.

The pall settles over Expectations early. In the first scene a tow-headed boy pilots a tiny boat along the Gulf shore. Suddenly this calm, pretty scene is interrupted by the voice over of Hawke, who lets us know that this an Important Moment. It's an annoying habit, and one that continues unrelentingly throughout the film. No scene is allowed to pass without the painfully overdone narration reminding us of its gravity and significance. And while I'm happy to place a lot of the blame on Mitch Glazer's script—which goes from the gruesomely prosaic to the overweeningly poetic—Hawke certainly doesn't add much to the party.

Hawke is the Clint Eastwood of romance. He has only a single heavy-lipped, dull-eyed, mouth-breathing expression. It is the look of someone who is constantly befuddled. But this is no ordinary look of befuddlement—the look any man might have if a supermodel strode into his dingy house and bade him put his hands on her thighs. No, this is a deep and abiding befuddlement—the look of a man who has never been able to understand anything going on around him.

Hawke's partner in vacuity is Paltrow. Unlike Hawke, however, Paltrow doesn't look confused so much as profoundly disinterested. Paltrow is so busy looking down her nose or sashaying out of a room that she seems barely to know what do with herself when she's actually addressed by another human being—luckily she's in Great Expectations, so those unfortunate events are few and far between.

And so the audience is trapped between the bewildered and the bored, forced to watch a romance in which no one seems to care much for anyone else or understand why anything is happening to them at all. There are some pretty drawings to look at occasionally, and Anne Bancroft and Robert DeNiro come in doing their schticks like old vaudeville hands...but other than that, there's nothing.

Nothing. No good jokes, no brilliant shots, no insightful dialogue, no heart-wrenching passion. Great Expectations was nothing but the waste of six-and-a-half dollars of my money and the sick feeling inside that two hours of my life were gone, hours that I was never, ever getting back.

Note: It wasn't just me, either. To make sure that my opinion of Great Expectations wasn't unduly influenced by my innate dislike of Ethan Hawke and occasional irritation with the clichés of romance movies, I forced my girlfriend to see it with me. This is a woman who cries at insurance commercials and was so dehydrated after Titanic that she had to be airlifted to the hospital. Great Expectations left her eyes as dry as a good martini.


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