Mathieu’s Opus: Jugnot in The Chorus.
by Christophe Barratier
Did you know that it was a Frenchman who was to blame for
Steven Spielberg making E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial?
The late French director François Truffaut, costarring in
Close Encounters of the Third Kind, supposedly told
the director: “Steeeeven. You must make a fee-ilm with keeeeds.”
This is worth mentioning only to prove that The Chorus
isn’t the first bad idea a Frenchman has ever had about making
a film featuring children.
Set just after the end of World War II in a French school
for troubled boys, the story begins with the arrival of Clément
Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot), the school’s new superintendent.
He immediately learns that these kids are vicious and violent,
and that the school’s cruel overseer, Rachin (François Berléand),
repays the disobedient brats in kind; Rachin’s motto is “action-reaction!”
But are the kids really bad? Or is it the system that’s making
them bad? Before you know it, we’re in the middle of that
movie. You know, the one in which the bad kids are really
little dears inside, and the “good” people in power are really
evil. All it takes to transform the delinquents is a little
respect and—as the title would suggest—singing.
(This isn’t the biggest cliché the filmmakers have up their
sleeve, either. The Chorus has a framing device—the
action is told in flashback—that is both simplistic and wrongheaded,
as the eventual happy ending is given away.)
It isn’t as hard to suspend disbelief as one might think.
The child actors are, mostly, first-timers when it comes to
filmmaking, and the inexperience is a plus. (Youthful mugging
for the camera is happily absent.) The two main adult actors,
Jugnot and Berléand (previously memorable as the whiny heroine’s
gruff old lover in Catherine Breillat’s Romance), are
The story even manages to nicely understate the promise of
romance between the nice-guy superintendent and a troubled
kid’s mom. This is a neat trick, considering that the troubled
kid is a singing prodigy, and one might be forgiven for seeing
ulterior motives in the hapless teacher’s passion.
The suspension of disbelief is lost, however, when the kids
start singing. OK, maybe not the first time they open their
mouths, but by the third or fourth rehearsal, the brats sound
like the Vienna Boys Choir. Suddenly, I felt like I was watching
Going My Way, the 1944 Best Picture winner with Father
Bing Crosby making Brooklyn street kids sing like angels.
Except, of course, that Bing’s kids only sang in a couple
of scenes, while in The Chorus, the kids sing all
the time. And too, too beautifully.
of the House
by Stephen Herek
With a title that seems straight out of the prime-time listings
in TV Guide, it’s not surprising that Man of the
House, directed by Stephen Herek, comes off as something
akin to an occasionally amusing but overall insipid sitcom.
Tommy Lee Jones plays Texas Ranger Roland Sharp, another in
a long line of gruff, tough lawman roles, only this time the
kicker is that he’s assigned to protect a gaggle of foolish
cheerleaders who have witnessed a murder. Get it—ha ha—cantankerous
professional having to deal with giggling, undies drying on
the shower rod, shopping for tampons, partial nudity, and
the like. Seemingly, this, er, concept is as far as the planning
or development for this movie ever got.
With disastrous results, Herek tries to blend elements of
sorority-house sitcom with thriller. There are whole sections
of the movie in which the audience may plumb have forgotten
the purpose of Sharp’s babysitting, only to be reminded irregularly
in sketchy scenes in which the bad guy-rogue FBI agent (Brian
Van Holt) emerges to look dastardly. If this guy is the best
that either the FBI or the enemy has, we can rest assured
that our freedoms and liberties are safe. It’s apparent, just
from the movie poster, that Sharp will soften up under the
influence of his charges, who go from resenting his authoritarian
manner to learning that academic plagiarism is bad and that
covering up their belly rings and boob jobs is good. By the
end of the movie, they’re dispensing dating advice, fostering
better communication between Sharp and his estranged daughter,
and forgoing their Zone and Atkins type diets for a slice
of his meat-laden pizza.
Strangely, the movie casts Cedric the Entertainer in a tiny,
throwaway role as a convict-turned-minister, whose only purpose
seems to look foolish in a cheerleading costume and secreting
a cell phone in the nether regions of a bovine. In what surely
must be an all-time low for Jones the actor, the dogged Agent
Sharp retrieves said instrument with only an elbow-length
plastic glove for assistance. Since this is posited as the
movie’s first “funny” moment, it can easily be deduced that
it’s all downhill from there. The few bright spots come from
a trio of somewhat unlikely sources: Kelli Garner nails a
sweetly ditzy coed named Barb; Vanessa Ferlito recalls an
earthy, smart early Rita Hayworth, and Anne Archer lends much-needed
class and sophistication as a tough English professor.