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What a bastard: Hoffman in Capote.

No Redeeming Quality
By Shawn Stone

Capote

Directed by Bennett Miller

Apparently, writers can be sons of bitches. In brief, that’s what this film is about.

In 1959, two drifters slaughtered a rural Kansas family for no good reason. Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a Southern-born New York novelist, read about the killings in The New York Times and was immediately hooked. With his cousin Nelle Harper Lee (yes, that Harper Lee, of To Kill a Mockingbird fame, deftly played by Catherine Keener) along as a research assistant, Capote grabbed the first train west and began a four-year process that ended with the killers’ executions and the publication of his landmark nonfiction account, In Cold Blood.

To get every excruciating detail, the effete Capote is lying and manipulative. That a writer or journalist would act this way seems to be hot news to the makers of Capote. The film’s tone is almost prim, obsessing over how this dreadful New Yorker treated Kansans shabbily.

Did Capote treat the killers badly? You bet. Did he lie and manipulate them? Oh yeah. Did he, by withholding his influence at the very end, make himself complicit in their executions? Yes. Would they have been executed anyway, even if he had interceded? It’s more than likely, but Capote stacks the deck by never contemplating this possibility.

Whatever. All this would be riveting, if betrayal weren’t the film’s only point. Some sympathy is there, at first; Capote gets his due in a number of scenes for his astute observational skills and intuitive ability to get people to open up. After a while, however, the film starts to seem like a prosecution—the Nazi war criminals in the film Judgment at Nuremberg got a fairer trial.

Surprisingly, Hoffman isn’t much help. Usually a sympathetic presence—even the preacher and would-be murderer he played in Cold Mountain had a modicum of charm—Hoffman is unusually distant here. He has Capote’s unique manner down perfectly, but doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself, or much interested in charming the audience. (Unlike, say, Robert Morse, who was very entertaining in Tru, the one-man show about the author.)

What’s missing is the sense of excitement in—and respect for—what Capote accomplished. When New Yorker editor William Shawn (Bob Balaban) tells Capote the effect his book will have—that it will change what people write—he’s absolutely correct. Browse the racks at your favorite bookstore, or surf basic cable: Nonfiction crime narratives are everywhere.

Because the filmmakers—including director Bennett Miller, screenwriter Dan Futterman and executive producer Hoffman—seemingly want to focus only on Capote-as-lying-bastard, the ultimate impact of the drama is blunted. The experience may well have shattered Capote’s ability to write; or maybe he was just as crippled by his alcoholism. And their punch line invites another punch line: While Capote did indeed never write another book, neither did his cousin. What was Harper Lee being punished for—being too sentimental about her book’s hero?

Maybe the filmmakers are right. Maybe Truman Capote was a loathsome son of a bitch, and the balance should tip against him in the end. Unfortunately, this film’s director had his thumb on the scales from the beginning.

Dylan Was Right

The Weather Man

Directed by Gore Verbinski

In the opening of The Weather Man, Dave Spritz (Nicolas Cage) is seen waving his arms around with grace and determination, but to no apparent purpose. Spritz is a Chicago TV forecaster, and his ability to motion to specific points on a blank computer screen (unfilled with maps and weather icons) is his only real talent. Through Dave’s mordant interior monologue, we realize that he is facing a midlife crisis of sorts. His often inaccurate meteorological predictions get him pelted by the public with unlikely ammo, such as a half-empty Frosty and full Big Gulp; during a crisis, he will be inspired to reflect on the ridiculousness of his existence after getting whacked on the lapel with a still-steaming Hot Apple Pie.

Directed by Gore Verbinski as a de-tuned American Beauty, but with more humor and less melodrama, The Weather Man is also under the influence of Charlie Kaufman, especially in its surreal narration, delivered by Cage (star of Kaufman’s Adaptation) in his usual, and potently comic, fugue state. Playing a repentant rogue whose bad temper and adolescent sexuality cost him his marriage, Cage carries the film on his depressed shoulders, milking Dave’s shallow yet sincere ruminations for all their mordant amusement. Dave lives in the shadow of his famous father, Robert, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author (Michael Caine) who can’t quite hide his disappointment in Dave. It’s Robert who alerts Dave to the unhappy state of his two children, Shelly (Gemmenne de la Pena), a chubby 12-year-old who smokes, and her older brother, Mike (Nicholas Hoult) who is just home from rehab. Dave’s failing attempts to rouse Shelly out of her apathy are astutely sympathetic to both father and daughter.

When Robert is diagnosed with lymphoma, Dave’s efforts to get his children back on track and to reunite with his estranged wife (an excellent Hope Davis) take on a new urgency. He’s also up for a job with a popular national morning talk show, and the promise of a huge salary buoys his determination even as his job interviews play up the frivolity of his career—he doesn’t have a meteorology degree, and even if he did, it wouldn’t be much help. Predicting wind patterns, he realizes, is as inexact and taxing a science as fatherhood.

Set against a frigid Chicago winter that provides a dramatic backdrop, at times dismayingly bleak but also beautifully monochromatic (the use of Lake Michigan is especially effective), The Weather Man seeks to comment on the emptiness, ludicrousness, and small but important pleasures of the American Dream. Dave’s misguided but genuine love for his family, especially for his dourly practical father, is poignant in an admirably unvarnished way. But the downbeat conclusion, in which Dave makes his peace with the limitations of his life, is peculiarly unsatisfying. Verbinski skillfully strives for a meaningful final flourish, but as so often happens in films that try to make an easily digestible statement about the American family, he falls short. Dave never does figure out which way the wind is blowing, but like the TV persona he plays, his knack for going with the flow of pressure currents is reliably entertaining.

—Ann Morrow

A Dull Blade

The Legend of Zorro

Directed by Martin Campbell

As in The Incredibles, the eponymous hero (Antonio Banderas) of The Legend of Zorro has a hard time adjusting to the responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood. Seems that the demands of meting out justice don’t blend nicely with the domestic schedule, or as Zorro’s wife Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) wails, “You’re missing your son’s growing up!” Oh, what I’d give for the days when Tyrone Power swashbuckled across the soundstage; such mundane fare wasn’t even a consideration, and the last thing one would expect from lovely Linda Darnell would be a harpish tongue lashing.

The sequel to the much better 1998 Mask of Zorro, The Legend of Zorro tries to cater to Baby Boomer parents, themselves juggling the demands of career and family. In the process, however, director Martin Campbell loses much of the stuff that made the first addition sizzle. Did I mention that Zorro, known during the day as the foppish Don Alejandro, and Elena now have a 10-year-old, Joaquin (Adrian Alonso), whose addition transposes the story much more into Lassie territory than one could hope for?

Suffice it say that there are exactly three wonderful swashbuckling moments, squeezed into what seems like a very elongated tale of a group of knights, led by Armand (Rufus Sewell), set on conquering America and Elena’s heart—not necessarily in that order. Supposedly, Joaquin is heartbroken by the breakup of his parents’ marriage, but we can only guess that, since most of the time he’s seen aiming his slingshot at the backsides of priests and bad guys. Armand’s hired gun is a slimy creature who looks more like he stepped out of a Judas Priest concert than anything remotely western, and all attempts to align him with Robert Mitchum’s dastardly preacher in The Night of the Hunter are for naught. There’s just no comparison.

Still, Banderas has a ball, and is joyous to watch, not just in the moments where he gets to fence and spar. His comic finesse is a highlight of moments such as the big ball, when he drunkenly confronts Elena on her supposed infidelity. In this he is matched nicely by Zeta-Jones, who is perfectly fiery and, of course, breathtaking, despite a series of horribly designed and colored costumes. (Note to costume designers: Sulfurous yellow looks good on nobody.) Even Alonso isn’t bad, somehow avoiding the overly cute that the script desperately wants him to play. In the end, however, it’s a decidedly tired Zorro, weighed down by too much emphasis on relevance.

—Laura Leon

The May-December Blues

Prime

Directed by Ben Younger

Conventional wisdom is that big age differences matter in relationships. And, as this is a Hollywood film, conventional wisdom is affirmed in Prime, the story of an affair between a 23-year-old guy and a 37-year-old woman. (The irony, of course, is that, with the genders reversed, marriages like this are practically the norm in Tinseltown: Michael Douglas is what, 30 years older than Catherine Zeta-Jones?) At least the norm is not reinforced in an overly obnoxious way, and Prime isn’t a bad little picture.

The title, of course, refers to the physiological fact that a woman reaches her sexual prime in her 30s, while a man is over the hill by his mid-20s. So, having alluded to this up front, the filmmakers are clearly signaling that there’s going to be a lot of sex in this story. The surprise is how well writer-director Ben Younger gets the emotions right.

And there’s another thing. Since this is a romantic comedy, there’s a twist—the older woman, Rafi (Uma Thurman), is seeing a therapist, Lisa (Meryl Streep), who just so happens to be the mother of the younger man, David (Bryan Greenberg).

For Rafi and David, it’s love (read: lust) at first sight. She’s just gone through a bad divorce; he’s tired of immature young women. The fun comes when mom realizes that her patient is David’s lover. As shrink, Lisa has encouraged Rafi’s sexual adventurism; as mom, she’s horrified to realize that the “beautiful penis” being described belongs to her boy.

Streep, as she has of late, pretty much steals every scene she’s in. As much as she embodied wasp elitism in The Manchurian Candidate, Streep is a thoroughly convincing therapist and Jewish mother here. It’s a delight to watch her morph from “go ahead and do it” therapist telling her patient to follow her bliss to fretting Jewish mom, worrying over her son’s career or sexuality or—most insistently—his commitment to Judaism. It’s a physical as well as emotional transition, the kind of acting that gives “the method” a good name.

Thurman is wonderful, too. Something seems to have happened to her as a result of the whole Kill Bill experience, because she’s now completely at ease on screen. Thurman has, for lack of a better description, finally come into her full movie-star glory. I came across a sound bite from New York Times critic A.O. Scott on the Internet recently, to the effect that Thurman glows in the part; it’s probably the first time I’ve ever agreed with him.

The film churns through its plot with plenty of charm, if not enough humor. When things fall apart, it’s convincing, and the film actually manages to end on a graceful note. Most of the credit goes to Streep and Thurman, who are both in their acting prime.

—Shawn Stone


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