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M. Mathieu’s Opus: Jugnot in The Chorus.

Going Moi Way
By Shawn Stone

The Chorus
Directed 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 very entertaining.

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.

Sorority Cop

Man of the House
Directed 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.

—Laura Leon

 


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