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The Long Goodbye
By Peter Hanson

Iris
Directed by Richard Eyre

The most startling scene in Iris, the story of Iris Murdoch’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease, isn’t one depicting the famed British novelist’s deterioration. Rather, it’s a harsh moment in which her husband, John Bayley, snaps after long months of doting on his ailing spouse. Suddenly seized by old doubts that he’s not good enough for the grand dame he married, John shrieks that he won Iris’ hand despite competition from other suitors, but this is his reward: a nearly vegetative figure who can barely speak and has virtually no perception of reality. “I don’t want you,” he wails. “I hate you!”

Such blistering moments raise Iris above the norm of disease-themed pictures, and the credit goes entirely to the quartet of actors who enact the delicate dance of John’s tumultuous life with Iris. In wistful flashbacks, Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville play Iris and John during their passionate courtship. And in taut present-day scenes, Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent take over the roles. Based on Bayley’s memoir of Murdoch, the picture draws a parallel between the bumpy road that led to the couple’s marriage and the even-rougher path the lovers walk when Iris’ mind is ravaged by disease.

The content of the Alzheimer’s scenes is as rough as expected, but director Richard Eyre’s style is so polite and polished that the most rugged moments lose some of their edge. Even when we see aged Iris relieving herself onto a newspaper in the living room of her squalid home, Eyre keeps a reserved distance that prevents viewers from feeling the moment in their bones. Eyre’s direction, in fact, is often at odds with the power of the four leading performances. The director never shies from a chance to photograph Winslet’s naked form, but he often averts his camera eye from emotional nakedness. It’s a testament to the force of the lead performances that the actors are able to push through this directorial veneer and create moments of tremendous intimacy.

In the youthful scenes, Winslet portrays Iris as a fiercely independent writer who’s utterly without vanity in some respects—she skinny-dips in a river, oblivious to ogling passersby—but intensely protective of her art. Young John, conversely, is happy to discuss his own writerly exploits, but so stingy with his emotions that he has a pronounced stutter. Watching these two characters find the commonalities of their open minds and open hearts is as heartwarming as watching their subsequent fates is heart-wrenching.

More importantly, the vigor of the Winslet scenes provides a context that keeps the Dench sequences out of movie-of-the-week territory. Because Eyre regularly cuts to moments of young Iris’ surprising willfulness, viewers are constantly reminded of what’s being lost in the present-day storyline. The intercutting also takes a deeper meaning when aging John snaps at his wife, because he reveals that he never felt like he truly extracted his bride from the private world she occupied when he met her. The surprise of John’s breakdown is not that his patience has a limit, but rather that the same quality which made him fall in love with Iris—her irrepressible individualism—created such feelings of inadequacy that he harbors doubts about her devotion.

This, then, is what differentiates Iris from Rain Man and its pandering ilk: Although the film has plenty of scenes dramatizing how far Iris falls into decrepitude, the picture is inherently about the vagaries of love, not the vagaries of disease. And instead of merely tossing platitudes about fidelity at the audience, the movie finds ways to show that love is a journey, a challenge, even sometimes a test.

Abstention Deficit

40 Days and 40 Nights
Directed by Michael Lehmann

Who says Hollywood ignores religion in American life? Last month, audiences were taken on A Walk to Remember with pop tart Mandy Moore, who portrayed a virginal Christian teen. Now, in this season of Lent, when millions of faithful Christians abstain, reflect and pray, a timely movie has arrived in which a young Catholic forswears all forms of sexual activity for the titular 40 Days and 40 Nights. The fact that Matt (Josh Hartnett) punctuates this sacred vow by popping his head out of the confessional and shouting “Dude” to an elaborate wooden crucifix in an elegant old church, however, may not be the typical penitent’s idea of “Amen.”

Ah, but Matt is not a penitent with a pure heart. He’s just a horny, miserable dude, insanely obsessed with his ex-
girlfriend Nicole (Vinessa Shaw). After Nicole dumps him, Matt embarks on a string of unsatisfying, anonymous sexual encounters. When he learns of her engagement, he takes the abstinence vow in order to . . . well, it isn’t exactly clear. A purification ritual in hopes of winning her back? A timely break for his fragile mental state? It doesn’t really matter. Director Michael Lehmann and screenwriter Rob Perez put more effort into semen jokes than character motivation.

Predictably, Matt’s vow becomes a subject of horror, derision and perverse fascination for his friends. His roommate, Ryan (Paulo Constanzo), is comically outraged at this offense against nature, but immediately sees the potential to use celibacy as a pickup line. Matt’s coworkers at a San Francisco Internet-design company create a Web site about his effort, and take bets on which day he’ll fail.

Some of this manages to be crass and funny—as when one female coworker condemns Matt for challenging the divine right of women to withhold sex—but mostly, it’s just crass. Better are the scenes in which Matt wrestles with his sexual demons by reverting to adolescent male fun, like putting together model-car kits. Hartnett manages to be genuinely funny at these moments, knowing just how much his hand should tremble as he tries to paint a tiny plastic Volkswagen.

Naturally, God throws temptation in Matt’s path, in the form of Erica (Shannyn Sossamon). Unlike the dreaded Nicole, Erica is sweet and nice. The rest is the usual drill, with boy-loses-girl followed ultimately by boy-wins-girl, all of it interrupted by Viagra jokes, bad special effects (Matt dreaming he’s floating over an ocean of breasts), and a lot of dumb plot complications. Ultimately, the issue of the vow itself is subsumed in a sea of relationship psychobabble, and the film ends with the lovers engaged in a blissful (offscreen) sexual marathon.

In the end, does Matt keep the vow? Let’s just say the film ends too soon, before God can exact his divine punishment on the hero. The only ones punished are in the audience.

—Shawn Stone

Vietnam Conflicted

We Were Soldiers
Directed by Randall Wallace

It’s hard to believe that Ron Howard didn’t direct We Were Soldiers, the new Vietnam flick starring Mel Gibson, because the movie has every earmark of Opie’s style: glossy vignettes of touchy-feely emotion, sweeping moments of unlikely heroism, tame yuks employed to make tense scenes bearable, rousing tributes to old-fashioned values. Yet the man behind this film is writer-director Randall Wallace, who made his name with the screenplay of Braveheart. By combining the visceral combat of that film with a smooth storytelling style reminiscent of Howard’s, Wallace crafted a picture that’s compelling but instantly forgettable.

Gibson stars as U.S. Army Lt. Col. Harold Moore, who led the first group of Air Cavalry soldiers sent to Vietnam, and even though the character and his story are based on real events, much of what happens feels artificial. The movie’s Harold is a stalwart officer who meets fear with a ready quip and a trusty sidearm, and the soldiers with whom he interacts seem equally fake, particularly the unsmiling drill sergeant played by Sam Elliot. The key civilian in the story is Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper), a combat photographer who gets in over his head when Harold’s unit becomes involved in an epic, bloody firefight with North Vietnam Army guerrillas.

The movie begins with an intense sequence of French soldiers getting slaughtered by NVA troops, and this sets the tone for the film’s best aspect—a respectful depiction of the NVA as a righteous force bent on repelling invaders. Throughout the picture, Wallace cuts to the Vietnamese command center in an underground tunnel, and he mostly eschews opportunities to portray the Vietnamese as savages. Another strong point is that the movie isn’t inherently jingoistic; the director’s palpable admiration for brave soldiers extends to both sides of the battle. Wallace reserves his greatest disdain for generals who recklessly send enlisted men to their deaths simply to achieve shortsighted political goals.

Unfortunately, the director’s noble attempt to portray both Vietnamese and American troops humanistically clashes with the over-the-top heroics performed by the U.S. soldiers. The director seems torn between showing graphic images that accentuate the horror of combat, of which there are quite a few, and objectively depicting a historic event. So while individual scenes in the movie are incredibly arresting—particularly those in which exhausted Americans are overrun by wave after wave of fresh Vietnamese troops—the movie as a whole is a muddle of incompatible intentions.

—P.H.


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