by Richard Eyre
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
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.
Days and 40 Nights
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.
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.