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Gambit Weekly Love Potions and Hot Bodies

By Rick Barton

MARCH 9, 1998: 

FILM: Afterglow
STARRING: Nick Nolte, Julie Christie
DIRECTOR: Alan Rudolf

What a strange career Alan Rudolf has had. A longtime associate of Robert Altman, Rudolf has always enjoyed a certain panache among Hollywood intellectuals and select critics. But his 15-movie corpus as a director has been all over the map. He debuted in 1976 with Welcome to L.A., a widely overpraised drama about loneliness and the difficulty of meaningful connections. To my mind, critics liked what the picture should have been rather than what it was. In 1979, he made Roadie, a broad rock 'n' roll comedy with Meat Loaf that produced a lot more sweat than laughs. In 1981 came Endangered Species, a thriller with no thrills. See a pattern here? You're right; there isn't one.

Rudolf's best two films were quirky comedies: Choose Me (1984) and Love at Large (1989). Elsewhere, he's made a couple of intriguing films about literary figures, Ernest Hemingway in The Moderns (1988) and Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994). Actors like to work with Rudolf because, like Altman, who routinely produces Rudolf's films, Rudolf is a collaborator. He's particularly good with women. Jennifer Jason Leigh was wonderful in Mrs. Parker, as were Genevieve Bujold, Lesley Ann Warren and Rae Dawn Chong in Choose Me and Anne Archer in Love at Large. In his current release, Afterglow, Rudolf has supervised an Oscar-nominated performance by the estimable Julie Christie. Good for him. But Christie's work is about the only reason you might want to invest in Rudolf this go round.

Afterglow is a tale of two marriages. Phyllis (Christie) and Lucky (Nick Nolte) Mann have been married for a quarter century, but the union has been in trouble for some time. Phyllis is a former B-movie actress who now spends her days in melancholic lethargy, watching her old films and recalling largely how bad they were. Lucky has a lot more energy. He calls himself a contractor, but he appears to be little more than a handyman. He's got lots of work, most of which comes less from his skill under the sink than under the sheets with the lonely women who hire him. Late-twentysomethings Marianne (Lara Flynn Boyle) and Jeffrey (Jonny Lee Miller) Byron, meanwhile, aren't doing much better. Jeffrey is a workaholic investment banker who seems oblivious to his wife's considerable charms. Marianne loves her husband, or so she proclaims, but she seems obsessed with her biological clock. Enter Lucky to build a nursery for the baby Marianne has yet to conceive. And let nature take its course.

The Afterglow on Nick Nolte's face doesn't have anything to do with his wife, Julie Christie.
Rudolf's thesis here seems to be that love is contagious. Lucky and Phyllis had a violent argument the better part of a decade ago, and things haven't been right since. Among the losses was their beloved daughter, from whom they are now estranged. Lucky still carries a torch for his wife, but she's too depressed to respond. She tolerates what he does with his clients because it relieves her from any sexual responsibility. We haven't a clue what Jeffrey's problem is. He seems more interested in older women. A mother fixation? But he's almost completely unlikable. Then Lucky and Marianne start making whoopee, and the heat gets turned up for everybody in the film. What's different is that Lucky finds himself actually falling for Marianne, and that switchblades Phyllis out of her long stupor. Boffing is one thing; caring is quite another. It's not quite clear who gets Jeffrey's attention, but eventually he's spying on his spouse with the same intensity as Phyllis. You never know what you've got until it's gone, I guess.

The song goes, "If I was a carpenter and you were a lady, would you marry me anyway, would you have my baby?" In our classless ideal, we know the answer ought to be "of course." But with the exception of Liz Taylor, we know the answer is usually "no." So what's a lady like Phyllis doing with a carpenter like Lucky in the first place? Rudolf owes enough back story to make us believe in their original relationship. And he needs to do major surgery on Jeffrey to keep us from wanting to slap his smug, cruel face. For the most part, though, Rudolf needs to recognize that most marriages are not rejuvenated by getting naked with someone other than your spouse. It's great to see Julie Christie back in top form, and she is. She looks great, and she gives Phyllis a haunting depth. But in the end, this is a picture that ought to come with a warning: Do Not Try This at Home Yourself.

Hot Body

In contrast to Alan Rudolf, Volker Schlondorff has not had an up-and-down career, certainly not in terms of his seriousness and his lofty ambition. He won a Palme D'Or at Cannes in 1979 (shared with Francis Ford Copolla's Apocalypse Now) and a best foreign film Oscar that same year for his adaptation of Gunter Grass' novel The Tin Drum. Throughout his career, Schlondorff has specialized in high-minded literary adaptations: Marcel Proust's Swan in Love (1984) with Jeremy Irons, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1985) with Dustin Hoffman, Ernest Gaines' A Gathering of Old Men (1987) with Louis Gossett Jr. and Holly Hunter, and Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale (1990) with Robert Duvall, Natasha Richardson and Faye Dunaway. These films were not unqualified successes. Even the vaunted Tin Drum had its detractors (including me). But along the way, Schlondorff made two enduringly outstanding films, again both literary adaptations: Heinrich Boll's The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975) and Nicolas Born's Circle of Deceit (1981). In every case, and throughout his career, we find Schlondorff dealing with important issues of the human condition: war, freedom, race, religious tyranny, sexism. So what in the world is he doing turning out a piece of drivel like his current Palmetto?

Palmetto is the story of a deadly dupe. Elisabeth Shue is deadly (in oh-so-many ways), and Woody Harrelson is the dupe. Harrelson is journalist Harry Barber from small-town Palmetto, Fla. Harry went to jail a couple of years back when the corrupt local police authorities framed him for something or other just as he was about to bust their chops for assorted dirty deeds. But now Harry is out, and he's got a chip on his shoulder. Too bad he doesn't have a chip in his brain, because Harry's noggin is running on kilobytes in a gigabyte world. Harry has a gorgeous, sexy girlfriend named Nina (Gina Gershon playing against type as the good girl), who has stood by him and is anxious to lie next to him. She's a local sculptor and her medium is metal, although that fact seems largely included to allow footage of Gershon sweating in a cropped T-shirt while wielding a blowtorch. Harry also has a loyal pal, John Rennick (Tom Wright), who's willing to help Harry find a job. But Harry can't seem to wait. And pretty soon, he's agreed to help a rich local blonde named Rhea Malroux (Shue) stage a kidnapping of her stepdaughter, Odette (Chloe Sevigny). Seems Rhea's rich husband, Felix (Rolf Hoppe), is a tightwad, and mother and stepdaughter would like to increase their walking-around cash. Odette disappears for a while. Harry makes a demand for $500,000. He keeps $50,000 for himself. Nobody gets hurt, and everybody's happy -- including Felix, who gets his precious baby darling home safe and sound. Well, this is a fool's endeavor, of course, but Harry is far too stupid to realize it.

We can only presume that screenwriter E. Max Frye is a big fan of Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat. The stories sure have a lot in common. There's the Florida coast setting. The double-crossing blonde sexpot. The dumb hero. The steamy dialogue. The hot coupling. The twisty plotting. And the lack of air-conditioning. But to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen's retort to Dan Qualye: I have seen Body Heat. I have studied Body Heat. I love Body Heat. And Palmetto is no Body Heat.

Here's how come: In Body Heat, William Hurt's Ned Racine isn't so much stupid as careless, and we don't realize just how careless until the film's concluding moments. In Palmetto, we realize how stupid Harry Barber is from the outset. He hated being in jail, but he's willing to risk going back to jail for a very long time for $50,000? He's willing to commit a felony with people who haven't the imagination to ask for more than a half-million dollars? In short, we see most every step coming a half-hour before Harry figures out he's been tricked still again. Next, Kathleen Turner gave the performance of her life in Body Heat. This was her first big role and before her head got as big as Wisconsin. I have always liked Elisabeth Shue, but she's godawful here. She plays sexy by throwing back her shoulders and sticking out her chest. She makes you cringe when she paws herself like Mickey Rourke telling a rude New York cab driver where he can find his tip.

I don't want to maintain that Palmetto lacks all entertainment value. It keeps the plot twists coming so long it finally manages to surprise you. And it does endeavor to avoid some of the routine thriller cliches. But this is low-rent stuff. So, in the final analysis, how do you explain it? Well, it is made from a novel, James Hadley Chase's Just Another Sucker. But I have to ask: Hasn't Schlondorff read any good books lately? .

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