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Cleaning up after the man: (l-r) Ejiofor and Tautou in Dirty Pretty Things.

The Curse of the Starving Class
By Shawn Stone

Dirty Pretty Things
Directed by Stephen Frears

‘There’s nothing so dangerous as a virtuous man.”

That’s what Sneaky (Sergi López), a sleazy hotel manager, tells Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), his too-honest night clerk. Okwe discovers horrifying evidence of a crime, and feels compelled to report it to the police; Sneaky offers to make the call, but not-so-subtly reminds his clerk of his immigration status. Okwe, like many of the bottom-rung workers in London’s Baltic Hotel, is an illegal immigrant.

Sneaky is just the first—and, in his slimy-but-direct way, the most honest—of a long line of exploiters of immigrants in Stephen Frears’ dark thriller Dirty Pretty Things. The title refers, directly, to Sneaky’s jaded explanation of the function of a hotel: People do dirty things at night, and it’s up to the staff to make them clean and pretty in the morning. Frears and screenwriter Steve Knight intend it to mean more than that, however. Immigrants do the dirty work that keeps a shiny, pretty market economy going, and are expected to remain invisible and accept their miserable lot; in return, they won’t be deported back to the even worse Third World misery they’ve escaped.

Almost every character in the film is a first-generation immigrant, except Juliette (Sophie Okonedo). She’s second- or third-generation, however, and has found her place in British society as a whore. That’s the less-than-optimistic subtext on which the film operates.

Okwe is a haunted man, a Nigerian doctor with a murky past, spending his days driving a cab and his nights in the hotel. He never sleeps (and chews an unidentified root to keep himself from sleep). He has two friends, cynical hospital morgue attendant Guo Yi (Benedict Wong) and demure hotel maid Senay (Audrey Tautou). Okwe rents couch space from Senay, a Turkish immigrant who dreams of joining her sister in the States. Everyone at the hotel thinks they’re “nesting,” as sarcastic hotel doorman Ivan (Zlatko Buric) puts it. Ivan’s half-right. The two are in love, but chastely—she’s a good Muslim girl and he’s a man of honor. In the world of this film, however, this doesn’t make them admirable. It makes them doomed.

In this film, an immigrant’s life is akin to running a gauntlet. There are exploitative employers, indifferent coworkers and vicious cops. When one thing goes wrong for an illegal (someone informs the police, or finds out your deepest secret), everything goes wrong. Senay gets in trouble with the authorities: She’s caught in the catch-22 of possessing a six-month visa, which allows her to “reside,” but not work. Okwe discovers that there’s an underground trade in human organs going on at the hotel. He knows that if he goes to the police, he’ll be deported.

The film is a dirty pretty thing in itself. It may have a dim view of Western capitalist society, but it’s not a downer. Whether the setting is the hotel, the taxicab garage or a sweatshop, the atmosphere of desperation is rendered with mordant humor and a stylish, world-weary cinematic élan.

The cast is perfect. Tautou is a nuanced mix of innocence and peasant determination; López (the psychopath from With a Friend Like Harry) is boozy, smug thuggishness personified; Wong is droll, but sympathetic. It’s Ejiofor’s film, however. He shows the pain and conflict inside him in small but devastating gestures and expressions. When Okwe finally resolves his past and present—proving, in the process, that Sneaky was right—the sense of release is overwhelming.

Life’s Like That

The Secret Lives of Dentists
Directed by Alan Rudolph

I’d be hard-pressed to guess what my unmarried, childless friends and associates would think of Alan Rudolph’s tale of marital disharmony, The Secret Lives of Dentists. On the other hand, I’d bet anything that married people, especially those with children, will laugh, cry and just plain wonder how their lives got on screen.

Based on the Jane Smiley book The Age of Grief, and adroitly scripted by Craig Lucas, the movie chronicles the often banal day-to-day of a longtime married couple, dentists Dave (Campbell Scott) and Dana (Hope Davis) Hurst, who share a practice, a spacious Westchester home and an upstate mountain cottage, and three lively daughters. In a voiceover, Dave admits that “the social aspect of the dental situation is the hardest for me,” and indeed, this is a man who, despite his easy rapport with his children, doesn’t seem to have much to say, nor any interests outside of work and home. Dana, on the other hand, gabs nonstop to her patients, dabbles in the local opera company, and flits in and out of the house on any number of real or imagined errands. The Hursts’ differences are so pronounced, to others, that the office staff gossips about it, and when eldest daughter Lizzie complains repeatedly of stomach ailments, her pediatrician—to Dave’s consternation—counsels her on internalizing the stress of her parents.

The obvious joke running through The Secret Lives of Dentists is that here we have a professional couple who spend their days probing the inner recesses of their patients oral cavity, but who never stop to examine their own, or share each other’s, inner desires or demons. When Dave happens upon what could be evidence of Dana’s infidelity, his reaction is to keep quiet, for fear that bringing the issue out in the open will mean the end of his entire domestic and professional existence. As a result, he avoids any possibility of real discussion with his wife, who meanwhile laments “I thought marriage would be like Cinerama. It would get wider and wider. It doesn’t. It gets smaller and smaller.”

Despite Dave’s outward cool, inside he’s tormented, so much so that he internalizes his most obnoxious patient, Slater (Denis Leary). Like the old Bugs Bunny cartoons in which Bugs or Daffy wrestles with the angel imagined on one shoulder and the devil on the other, Slater appears in Dave’s imagination at times when he most wants to snap at his philandering wife. Scott’s ability to go from “everything’s OK” daddy to man on the edge of a very nasty precipice—and back again at the beckoning of a toddler—is chilling, yet hysterical.

In fact, much of The Secret Lives of Dentists is remarkably funny, although the filmmakers never see fit to make fun of the state of matrimony, which would have been an all-too-obvious target. Nor do they sanitize or romanticize family life. Indeed, there is a moment when the Hurst family is felled by a virulent stomach flu, with everybody vomiting and running to the bathroom. Dave, having overcome the worst of his illness, is forced to run from room to room, nursing his family, barely having time to wipe his daughter’s puke from his pajama top, and Slater wonders why in the world Dave is fighting so hard to hang on to this existence. And yet the viewer—at least the married-with-children viewer—plainly knows that the reason is so much more, and sometimes so much less, than what’s visible to the outside observer.

While the movie toys with the idea of Dana’s infidelity, it really centers around the much more prevalent and serious issue of loneliness within marriage. For all the time they spend together, the Hursts barely have an opportunity for quiet conversation; Rudolph brilliantly depicts the chaos of life without a nanny, in which at least one child is always needy of a parent’s attention, there’s always dinner to be made or some such “home essential” task. This is the kind of marital quagmire that, because it is based in ho-hum reality, is so rare for big-screen stories. Let’s face it—where is the knife-wielding adulteress or the thought-dead-but-not spouse?

Hollywood has long avoided producing movies like The Secret Lives of Dentists, which deal sharply and yet affectionately with love and living, probably because they suggest that, contrary to countless self-help books and Style network testimonials, people don’t always remain the daring babe or dashing wit they may have been at one time. The problems with the Hurst marriage won’t be solved if Dave gets a makeover, say, and the movie goes on to suggest that people quietly, often passively, adapt to many levels of marriage—levels that may change depending on circumstances, age, and need. One senses, at the end of The Secret Lives of Dentists, that the Hursts will go on, and that they will experience moments that are deep and fulfilling, as well as others in which they mutual loneliness seems overbearing—and that in the end, it will all work out alright.

—Laura Leon

Please Fence Him In

Open Range
Directed by Kevin Costner

Open Range, the new Western epic from Kevin Costner, does not mark a return to the 1990 greatness of his Dances With Wolves. In fact, coming after the box office bombs of Waterworld and The Postman, the film can be regarded as Costner’s Last Stand. Set in the Midwest during the late 1800s, Open Range is purportedly about the vanishing freedoms of the country’s wide-open spaces, as represented by a small band of cowpokes who run into trouble with a powerful landowner. However, the evocative setup, which presents the prairie in all its lonesome glory, serves mostly as canvas for a hokey, pokey and muddled fable of good versus tyranny. Though the film revels in Costner’s tendency to sentimental morality, the real offender here is the cut-rate script.

Adapted by Craig Storpor, a first-time screenwriter (and not coincidentally, the film’s executive producer), the story has very little grasp of how to show motivation, how to reveal personality in a compelling fashion, or to how move the action from one sequence to the next. The film opens with a heavy dose of corn as the four cowhands pitch camp and display their adorable eccentricities. Costner is Charlie, a laconic Civil War veteran who is devoted to his boss. Boss Spearman is played by Robert Duvall as a vintage Duvall curmudgeon; kindly but with a dangerous edge of self-righteousness. The paternal bantering between the two men may be kind of silly for two actors who are 48 and 72 respectively, but with better dialogue, it would’ve worked.

The crew’s younger members are the bearlike Mose (ER’s Abraham Benrubi) and hapless Button (Diego Luna from Y tu Mamá También). On a trip to town for supplies, Mose gets in a brawl and is beaten close to death by the sheriff, who takes orders from the town patriarch, a cattle baron named Baxter (Michael Gambon, sporting a god-awful brogue). Baxter won’t abide free grazers trespassing on his land, and doesn’t mind resorting to murder to keep them off. Boss is willing to fight for his right to herd his cattle wherever he pleases, while Charlie becomes increasingly vengeful as his past life as a bloodthirsty soldier takes hold of him.

Fatally slowing the escalating incidents between the free rangers and Baxter’s minions are long interludes of the cowpokes just hanging out, and seemingly getting to know each other even though Boss and Charlie have been riding together for a decade. Costner is obviously in thrall to the Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood canon here, especially Eastwood’s death-of-the-West masterpiece, Unforgiven, but the clumsily portentous dialogue doesn’t add anything except tedium. While building to the climactic showdown in town, Boss and Charlie pay innumerable visits to the local doctor to check on Mose, and then Button, who is waylaid back at the wagon. (Button, who appears to be at least 17, is continually referred to as “just a boy,” even though by the standards of the time he’d have been considered as being well into adulthood).

Charlie takes a shine to the doc’s assistant, Sue (Annette Bening), a woman who is no longer young and is brassily frank about her diminished expectations. This potentially intriguing romance—that Sue is willing to settle for a violent man with few prospects simply because he loves her—is turned into a laughable exercise in gobbledygooky, forward-thinking-speak. Their hamfisted romance is not helped by the nostalgic set design, which gives the town the idealized veneer of an old-timey postcard.

Throughout, characters state the obvious with annoying pomposity (“They broke the mold after him,” says Charlie of the tough-talking boss). Meanwhile, Boss dilutes any romance regarding the imminent end of an unfettered way of life by complaining about cowherding and stating his intentions to buy a saloon. By the time the big shoot-out finally occurs (the delays encompass a mawkish trip to the candy store), the conflict has lost so much momentum that the resulting carnage comes off as a bloodbath rather than a battle for freedom. We barely see the oppression the townspeople have endured under Baxter; apparently, viewers are supposed to fill in the blank by recalling Gene Hackman’s very similar character in The Quick and the Dead. Open Range is distractingly stranded between the pulp fiction of that film and the high-minded fatalism of classic Westerns from High Noon on; the meandering result may leave some viewers believing that those wide open spaces didn’t disappear fast enough.

—Ann Morrow

Developmentally Disabled

Uptown Girls
Directed by Boaz Yakin

Mostly a showcase for the physical charms of Brittany Murphy, who mugs shamelessly as the camera ogles her every ditzy turn, Uptown Girls has a redeeming bit of grit within its confectionery concept of a script. Directed by Boaz Yakin, the fall and fairy-tale rise of a self-centered trust-fund baby manages to work in a real issue—that of how unacknowledged loss can warp the development of children of any age.

Murphy is Molly Gunn, a party girl in New York City whose mother and rock-star father died when she was a child. Molly has existed in perpetual childhood ever since, and receives a rude awakening when her manager makes off with her money. Having just turned 22, she is faced with realities like rent, employment, and household chores for the first time. Through a connection in her rock-industry social circle (presented with pathetic inauthenticity), Molly lands a job as nanny to Lorraine, called “Ray” (Dakota Fanning), the tyrannical 8-year-old daughter of a hotshot agent (Heather Locklear). Ray occupies about as much time on her mother’s mind as her limo driver.

Left on her own in a penthouse with a fleet of servants, Ray is preternaturally grown-up and sarcastic, and it’s hatred at first day for the two pampered princesses. But not for long, of course, and the scenes where they argue, play, and compare their experiences are the best in the film, with Murphy displaying a genuine warmth that the rest of the story ignores in favor of brainless pratfalls. She also holds her own with Fanning (I Am Sam), a formidable pint-size thespian with Mamet-style delivery.

Yakin, auteur of the critical smash Fresh, which centered on a savvy 12-year-old drug runner, has an acute understanding of the trials of being a child in a relentlessly adult world. But unfortunately, Yakin is not the screenwriter here, and the rest of the film concerns Molly’s unfulfilling romance with a mopey, Morrissey-style rocker (bland Jesse Spencer), whose musical sequences are wincingly awful. Tack on a saccharine ending tied to the cheesiest dance routine in film history, and the best that can be said for Uptown Girls is that teen audiences could do worse.

—Ann Morrow

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