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Nashville Scene Down to Earth

"Deep Impact" provides worthly thrills.

By Jim Ridley, Noel Murray, and Donna Bowman

MAY 18, 1998:  The term "guilty pleasure" can be defined in two words: disaster movie. No genre panders more shamefully to the basest interest of its audience, whether that interest is vicarious vandalism or sob-sister sanctimony. A true disaster movie will incinerate every pedestrian in Manhattan for our oohs and aahs, and in the very next instant wring suspense from whether some fleabag mongrel will outrun a fireball. And yet, who doesn't want to see Manhattan zapped into match sticks? In every moviegoer there lurks a juvenile tornado-gawker who thinks it'd be cool to see some other guy's house toasted.

Combining the requisite demolition-derby thrills with surprising emotional pull, Deep Impact is the best of the recent disaster-movie crop, which includes Twister, Firestorm, and last year's lavapaloozas Dante's Peak and Volcano. That's not exactly high praise. Deep Impact never transcends the genre: You'll still find the same stock structure and a few of the unintentionally funny moments you'd get in a vintage shake-'n'-baker like Earthquake. But it does offer above-par acting, an irresistible what-if premise, and a refreshingly grave tone that treats the onset of human extinction as something more than a CGI holiday.

In spirit, Deep Impact is a throwback to ambitious '50s sci-fi fare like When Worlds Collide, from which it basically borrows its plot. A comet the size of Mt. Everest is discovered by amateur astronomers, whose jubilation is tempered somewhat when they discover the damn thing is due to smash into the earth. When an outer-space demolition effort modestly named the Messiah succeeds only in splitting the comet in two, the stoic U.S. president (Morgan Freeman, our dream commander-in-chief) announces a national lottery that will shelter a million lucky so-and-sos in a network of underground caverns. (In Europe, Asia, and Africa, it's every man for himself--like anybody cares about the rest of the world.) Everyone left on the surface will drown, freeze, burn, or starve.

If Deep Impact had actually shown us those caverns, or let us in on the lottery process--I'd love to have seen the haggling over the 200,000 preselected "artists, teachers, and scientists"--it might've been a true classic. Instead, the script, written by the high-minded duo of Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin, is pretty much what you'd expect if you crossed the weepy sentimentality of Ghost with the quasi-religious solemnity of The Rapture. (The spaceship ain't called Messiah for nothing.) By setting the story on a blatantly biblical scale, Rubin and Tolkin have bitten off more than one two-hour blockbuster can deliver.


Exploding plastic inevitable
The people of America look on as a fireball hurtles to earth in Deep Impact

And yet the movie's earnest, intense seriousness works in its favor. Complaining about the routine characters in a disaster movie is like picking apart the dialogue in a porn flick; but within their narrow confines, the characters here--a grim cable-news anchor (Téa Leoni), her despondent mother (Vanessa Redgrave), a veteran astronaut (Robert Duvall)--effectively get us wondering how we'd react. The director, Mimi Leder, does a skillful if anonymous job of slamming the many subplots forward, managing to satisfy demolition junkies without capsizing the story's larger themes.

Larger themes--who are we kidding? All that matters in the disaster genre is mayhem. Maybe audiences would settle for still photographs when Henry Fonda pushed the button on Manhattan in Fail-Safe, but these days we want the computer-generated wrath of God, baby. Leder finally shrugs and gives everyone what they came for: a 1,000-foot breaker that crumples the Brooklyn Bridge, topples a World Trade Center tower, and drops the Statue of Liberty's head to the ocean floor (where Charlton Heston will presumably find it years later). Oddly, at the screening I attended, the audience did none of the cheering that accompanied the destruction in Independence Day. Maybe that's because Deep Impact does an unusually effective job of reminding us we're the ones being destroyed.

--Jim Ridley


Woo

The new comedy Woo is being marketed as a zany urban comedy in the same vein as Booty Call, Sprung, and How to Be a Player, and unfortunately it is just that. For cinema buffs, though, Woo is more interesting as the second feature by Daisy v.S. Mayer, whose previous film Party Girl was an unexpected delight and a career-launching showcase for star Parker Posey. This new picture, written by David C. Johnson, stars the appealing Jada Pinkett Smith, who shines in her spotlight as brightly as Posey did in hers. If only Smith's supporting cast were as, well, supportive.

Woo follows a stuffy paralegal (Tommy Davidson) as he navigates past his obnoxious buddies, his mooching ex-girlfriend, and a host of other indignities during a surprise blind date with a wild young woman named Woo (Smith). The screenplay's lack of invention is such that Johnson doesn't even have a clever way to get Davidson and Smith together. His idea of a "meet cute" is to have one of Davidson's friends call him up and say, "Can you get my girlfriend's cousin out of my hair tonight?" Talk about phoned-in plots.

As for the trio of pals who pop up every 15 minutes or so to make fun of Davidson's nerdiness and Smith's craziness, well, for three supposedly successful black professionals, they spend a surprising amount of time hanging out on corners hooting stupidly at women. I'd have been offended by the stereotyping if the majority African American audience hadn't laughed uproariously at every bit of shuck and jive.

The most disappointing thing about Woo, though, is the choice of Davidson both as costar and as the person from whose perspective the story is told. Davidson does nothing original with the role of an uptight young man looking for love; he plays the cliché every time--acting snippy, stumbling around, doing broad double takes. He has no presence and he's not funny. Why would we root for someone as charming as Smith to end up with such a zero? There's a small role in the film for the genuinely funny comedian Dave Chappelle, who plays a chicken-obsessed Romeo. Had the romance been between Chappelle and Smith, the film would've perked up considerably (and Johnson's strict adherence to black romantic-comedy formulas would be even more inappropriate).

It's hard to say what drew Mayer to this material, except that the story shares some themes with her first feature--both films are about likable social butterflies who have trouble getting close to men. And Jada Pinkett Smith has all the charisma that Davidson lacks; she's cute, smart, and infectiously high-spirited, and the way she picks apart Davidson's chums almost redeems their presence in the film. Unfortunately, we really only get to see her when Davidson's around. We know nothing about her job, her friends, her family, or her worldview. For a film called Woo, there's criminally little Woo to be had.

--Noel Murray


Less Misérables

As a teenager, I read Victor Hugo's Les Misérables in a big, two-volume book-club edition after my mother told me what a great story it was. After slogging through 100 pages, I realized that the story of ex-convict Jean Valjean and his tormentor Inspector Javert would be interrupted, about every other chapter, by long digressions about French politics, sociology, and economics. I satisfied my adolescent desire for plot by skipping over whole chapters of background and context.

Bille August's new film version of Les Misérables takes a similar approach. It zeroes in on the novel's heart--Javert's misplaced zeal for justice and Valjean's inability to escape his past--and cuts away everything that doesn't advance that plotline. The result is a serviceable but only occasionally engrossing film that will frustrate anyone hoping to be immersed in another time and place.

Liam Neeson is well cast as Valjean, who spent 19 years at hard labor for stealing bread before being paroled in 1815. Inspired by the trust of a cleric, he settles in the town of Vigau and becomes its mayor and a respected industrialist. But Javert (Geoffrey Rush), a former guard in the prison quarry who has been assigned to Vigau, recognizes Valjean and denounces him.

Javert is further angered by Valjean's kindness toward Fantine (a grimy Uma Thurman), an unwed mother whose death leaves her daughter Cosette without money or guardians. Valjean retrieves Cosette and manages to elude Javert long enough to establish a life in Paris, where the girl grows up to be Claire Danes and falls in love with a young revolutionary, drawing the renewed attentions of the obsessed policeman.

No attempt is made to explain or even evoke the complexities of Parisian politics in the post-Napoleonic period; Marius, the revolutionary, talks vaguely of the king and suffrage but names no names. Without context, the student agitators look like foolish idealists, Cosette's love for Marius comes across as a moony crush, and the themes of freedom and order that give resonance to Valjean's struggle are muted and oversimplified. All that's left to dramatize is Valjean's occasional confrontations with Javert, which do exhibit enough tension to drive the story along. Neeson and Rush are at ease with both their dialogue and their silence, which is more than can be said for the mutating accents of Thurman and Danes.

The filmmakers match the stripped-down story with a spare, clean production design and uncomplicated cinematography. It's hard to blame August or screenwriter Rafael Yglesias for the bare adequacy of Les Misérables; their bosses no doubt did everything but storyboard this for them. The arthouse version of Les Misérables had been done in 1995 by French director Claude Lelouch; all Columbia Pictures and Mandalay Entertainment wanted out of this version was a film with some prestige names to capitalize on the popularity of the musical.

If I had remained a teenager interested only in finding out what happens next, I might be satisfied with a movie that accomplishes those meager goals with some integrity. But grown-ups should know that what seems like disposable digression is actually the stage that supports the action.

--Donna Bowman


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