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Nashville Scene No Wasted Tears

Finally, a family-crisis film that doesn't pummel its viewers

By Jim Ridley

MARCH 15, 1999:  When viewers complain how sick they are of violent movies, and then say how thankful they are for something like Stepmom or The Other Sister, the proper reaction is a stifled snort. Fans of these tearjerkers may think they're being virtuous for choosing a "people movie" over the latest CGI onslaught, but in truth they just prefer one form of battering manipulation to another. A velvet glove hurts as much as an iron fist if you get slapped with it often enough.

With its themes of child loss and parental guilt, The Deep End of the Ocean could've left viewers with two black eyes, had it not been made with more skill and sensitivity. Yet its restraint may leave its target audience feeling cheated out of an emotional beating. Based on Jacquelyn Mitchard's novel, the film stars Michelle Pfeiffer as Beth, a suburban mom who takes her three kids to her 15th high-school reunion in Chicago. In a hotel lobby, the younger son, Ben, disappears from sight for an instant--a small lapse of time that turns out to last for the next 10 years, until a miracle makes the family whole again, for better and worse.

The standard rule of Hollywood weepies is that tragedy strikes only the glamorous and well-to-do, and when you find out Beth's a magazine photographer, just like Julia Roberts in Stepmom, you expect the usual. The book may be to blame, but Stephen Schiff's screenplay supplies plenty of head-scratching moments, starting with how the most conspicuous person in the hotel manages to swipe Beth's kid. The tone of Schiff's neat, superficial script recalls a '50s problem drama, down to the authority figure (detective Whoopi Goldberg) who's always around to dispense wisdom.

Yet Schiff also writes two- and three-character scenes that sketch the prickly relationships swiftly and effectively, and director Ulu Grosbard handles them with great empathy. Grosbard, whose underrated work includes Georgia and the great Dustin Hoffman ex-con drama Straight Time, establishes each scene from one character's point of view and then seeks out the others for emotional counterpoint. Even Ben's unwitting foster father, played with stoic depth by John Kapelos, is treated with concern.

Thanks to its many absorbing performances--particularly from Pfeiffer, Jonathan Jackson as son Vincent, and Ryan Merriman as Ben--The Deep End of the Ocean accumulates enough small, well-played moments to overcome its trumped-up weaknesses. It doesn't deliver the weepy catharsis the Stepmom crowd seems to crave, but that only adds to its likability. I've got no problem with a movie that thwarts its audience's desire to see people suffer.

Stanley Kubrick, 1928-1999

When it was announced last Sunday that director Stanley Kubrick died of natural causes at his home outside London, my reaction was purely selfish: "What's going to happen to Eyes Wide Shut?!" Kubrick's movies came around as often as comets--his most recent, Full Metal Jacket, was in 1987--and the thought of being deprived of one so close at hand was maddening. As it turns out, the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman thriller is still slated for July release. It's even reportedly complete, no small issue for a filmmaker who exerted fearsome control over his work.

What's intriguing is that Kubrick's movies were critiques of single-minded control. His brilliant The Killing flips back and forth in time to watch a meticulous race-track heist unravel, and mad militarists figured in his work as early as his 1957 masterpiece Paths of Glory. An intellectual skeptic with a wild, underestimated sense of humor, he didn't trust man with the choices man kept assuming--a theme that reached its apogee in the doomsday slapstick of Dr. Strangelove.

And yet, after the staggering technical accomplishment of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick was tagged for the rest of his career as a cold, emotionless craftsman. Watching A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket, it's hard to disagree. But Kubrick's fascination with dehumanization shouldn't be confused with some innate inhumanity, as I've admittedly done in the past. The Kubrick signature shot, used to stunning effect with the 18th-century landscapes of Barry Lyndon, begins with a figure or figures in relative close-up, then pulls back to reveal them in the midst of a vast and teeming world. However dwarfed or abstract, people were always at the center of his canvases.

Stanley Kubrick made only 13 features in a nearly five-decade career, and movie nuts should urge his longtime studio Warner Bros. to wage a full-scale big-screen retrospective, from the dazzling black comedy of Lolita to the grandeur and kinky wit of his unsurpassed biblical epic Spartacus. He died at age 70, two years shy of reaching 2001. It would only have been a letdown.

--Jim Ridley

Dramatically challenged

On my way to see The Other Sister, I spotted a T-shirt in a Spencer Gifts window featuring the pudgy, naked, smiling boy and girl of the '70s cartoon series "Love Is...." If the sentimentalization of innocent sexuality celebrated in "Love Is..." has made a comeback, it goes a long way toward explaining The Other Sister, a fuzzy-headed dramedy about romance among the mentally handicapped.

Juliette Lewis should have thought twice before accepting the part of Carla, a young woman with some unspecified mental retardation who fights for her independence against the wishes of an overprotective mother. And Giovanni Ribisi, an actor on the rise after Saving Private Ryan and a recurring role on Friends, should have thought three times before signing on as her similarly challenged love interest Daniel. But performers can rarely resist roles like these because they require so much overt acting--it looks so much more impressive than playing a normal schlub. The Other Sister contains several scenes in which the two hurl gestures, tics, and verbal mannerisms at each other like jugglers tossing pins. With all due respect to those dealing with mental handicaps, it's like watching dueling Rainmen.

Diane Keaton has a more nuanced role as Carla's mother, a society matron who automatically vetoes Carla's every move toward self-sufficiency. Tom Skerritt plays the father, and oh yes, as the title suggests, there are two other sisters, both of whom have desultory subplots that probably got shaved down after the rough cut. (One's a lesbian, the other's an engaged second-grade teacher.) The ostensible theme here is the dignity of Carla and Daniel, who want to be treated like adults. But director and cowriter Garry Marshall, in an appalling display of hypocrisy, presents scene after scene of unadulterated cutesiness, encouraging us to laugh at--not with--his unwitting characters.

The Other Sister continues the fantasy trend toward hyper-wealthy settings for supposedly wrenching human dramas. Carla's family keeps servants and belongs to the club, and even Daniel, who eats out of bus station bar buffets when he uses up his allowance, has a Mercedes dealer for a dad. But the most disturbing aspect of this sappy attempt to make us feel good about relating to the differently abled is its unforgivable condescension toward Carla and Daniel. When the two move toward adulthood by exploring their sexuality together, they strip down to boxers and little-girl underwear in separate rooms, then shuffle hand-in-hand into the bedroom like 6-year-olds on a greeting card. Sorry, Garry Marshall, but I don't believe that's what "Love Is...."

--Donna Bowman


The reason why the 18th-century French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses is perpetually adapted for the movies is the delicious dichotomy it presents between the elegant manners and the nasty bedroom politics of courtly lords and ladies. Stephen Frears' 1988 film version remains a bracing, sexually charged tableau, with a John Malkovich performance so strong that the actor has spent the rest of his career doing pale imitations of it.

Cruel Intentions transplants the plot of Dangerous Liaisons to the realm of aristocratic Manhattan preppies, but once the fun of figuring out the parallels is over, there's not much exciting about writer-director Roger Kumble's trashy adaptation. In the place of scintillating double entendre, there's outright vulgarity; in the place of Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Malkovich, there's Sarah Michelle Gellar, Reese Witherspoon, and Ryan Phillippe (who does his own pale imitation of Malkovich).

The flaw in this pastework jewelry is the film's goofy tone--Gellar and Phillippe especially come across like the child actors in Bugsy Malone, playing dress-up and tossing around smutty talk like cream pies. That's just fine for the first half of the story, which is meant to scandalize, but in the second half we have to believe that the sleazy Phillippe has fallen for virginal Witherspoon (whose honor is the source of Phillippe's wager with stepsister Gellar). Only there's no apparent attraction between the two prospective lovers, except that they both have weird knot-like protrusions on their foreheads, and they both sound silly speaking in patrician accents.

By the time the plot ticks down to the finale, all we can do is guess how Kumble will pull it off. Will Phillippe defend his honor on The Jerry Springer Show? Will Gellar get booed out of a pep rally? Will Witherspoon ever make good on her early promise as an actress? Is the soundtrack available in stores?

--Noel Murray.

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