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Portrait of a wolf: McGregor in Young Adam.

Original Sins
By Ann Morrow

Young Adam
Directed by David Mackenzie

In the opening of the Scottish film Young Adam, the camera follows the gentle glide of a swan. It’s the only gentle image there is; the lulling, underwater filming of the swan’s paddling soon takes the camera to another floating creature, a drowned woman whose white slip envelops her paleness like a halo. The body is fished out of the river by Joe Taylor (Ewan McGregor), who is quickly aided by his employer, Les (Peter Mullan). Joe’s detached quietude at their disturbing discovery is gradually explained: He knew the woman, although he tells no one.

Adapted from Alexander Trocchi’s “sexistentialist” novel by director David Mackenzie, Young Adam follows Joe, a womanizing drifter, as he sinks deeper into guilt and loneliness. Once an aspiring writer, he is now a menial laborer aboard a coal barge. He lives with Les and his wife, Ella (Tilda Swinton), and their young son in a cramped below-deck cabin. After a brusque prelude, Joe and Ella plunge into an affair that is based on a mutual and brazen disregard for Les, a naïve oaf preoccupied with drinking and gambling. As the adulterous fling solidifies into a relationship, Joe’s feverish memories reveal that he is haunted by his former girlfriend, Cathie (Emily Mortimer), a girl he dominated and exploited. Meanwhile the police have classified the drowning death as a murder.

Set against the picturesquely grimy background of postwar Glasgow, Young Adam is a character study framed as a thriller. If Joe has any awareness of how his compulsive womanizing creates chaos for himself and others, it certainly doesn’t bother him any. Yet there doesn’t seem to be much joy in his conquests, despite his wolfish confidence—like everything else in the lives of these working poor, sex is a grim business. Occasionally, a pleased, egotistical sneer crosses his troubled countenance, and by the end, his self absorption reaches nearly monstrous proportions. Even so, he remains likable on sheer attractiveness. This is arguably McGregor’s most subtle performance, and the lack of artifice only plays up his roguish good looks.

He’s matched in subdued intensity by Swinton: Ella may be coarsened by work and weather, but she is more than the drab scold she first appears. After the inevitable disillusionment with Joe, she shows herself to be made of sterner, finer stuff. Mullan as the cuckolded Les is equally memorable. In fact, it’s the acting, as well as Giles Nuttgens’ lustrously dank cinematography, that make Young Adam so absorbing; otherwise, this bleak and remorseless crime drama would be just another exercise in meaningless alienation.

Pleasure in Pain

DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story
Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber

A movie about dodgeball—pure genius. Why didn’t someone think of this before? While many folks have traumatic memories of being sadistically pelted with those red rubber balls in gym class, many more remember the sheer fun of playing a game without a lot of complicated rules or elaborate equipment. Most of all, to be specific to this movie, imagine the joy of seeing a group of not-very-good athletes, led by Vince Vaughn, get the crap beat out of them by a Girl Scout troop.

One of the essences of comedy is the spectator’s enjoyment of someone else’s misfortune. (The Germans have a wonderful word for it, schadenfreude.) DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story generously caters to this urge, allowing the audience to laugh at grown men and women being struck down, painfully, by blunt objects.

There’s a story, of course, but it doesn’t get in the way of the fun. Shlubby Peter LaFleur (Vaughn) owns the working-class Average Joe’s gym. It’s a place for regular guys like Gordon (Stephen Root), an obscure-sports fanatic, and Steve (Alan Tudyk), who thinks he’s a pirate. (Steve’s favorite phrase: “Garrh.”) Just across the street is Globo Gym, a high-tech nightmare run by White Goodman (Ben Stiller), an oiled-up, mustached moron with an absurdly high opinion of himself. White buys up Average Joe’s mortgage and forecloses; Peter and his posse have 30 days to raise $50,000. It just so happens that there’s a dodgeball tournament that will pay $50,000 to the winner.

Along with the violence, it’s the performances that make the film so much fun. Bleary-eyed Vaughn plays his laid-back character as if he had a perpetual hangover—though from what, it’s hard to say. (Life?) Nothing can make him upset, and when insulted, he shrugs it off with Zenlike ease. Stiller, on the other hand, creates a repellent character of exuberant obnoxiousness and horrific neuroses. He’s hilarious, proving that he does his best work playing characters with no redeeming value. Also on hand is scene-stealing Rip Torn as Patches O’Houlihan, a wheelchair-bound wretch who was once a dodgeball legend. The training regimen he comes up with for the Average Joe’s team can be summed up in two quotes: “If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball,” and “If you can dodge a car, you can dodge a ball.”

Yes, the movie has the obligatory tasteless jokes of the moment, including girly-girl bisexual babes making out for no good reason and pets licking inappropriate body parts. Yes, it has the kind of last-minute-heroics that were clichéd in 1935. It doesn’t matter. DodgeBall is, in large part, so appropriately tasteless that it transcends the moments of obvious stupidity.

—Shawn Stone

Defective Product

The Terminal
Directed by Steven Spielberg

If it wasn’t for the occasionally amusing, cutesy scenario and its professionally breezy pace, The Terminal might not be recognizable as a Steven Spielberg film. The director might like to bend reality in service to a deeper purpose, but for this absurdly fluffy comedy (based on a story by Andrew Niccol of The Truman Show), his disregard for real life, or even common sense, is just plain sloppy. Perhaps intended as a parable of the immigrant experience in America, The Terminal subverts its own shallow folklore—derived from Being There, Forest Gump, and any other Great American Experience movie starring an idiot savant—to the point where it’s pointless. Consider it a Spielberg knockoff.

The intrepid immigrant stranded in a New York airport is Viktor Novorski, whose cutesy naiveté would’ve been intolerable if he had been played by anyone but Tom Hanks. Overweight and mugging more than usual, Hanks still manages to employ his boyish charm to allow Viktor to overcome his language handicap and reveal himself as a savvy, rather than savant, voyager through the United States legal system. While en route to New York from his Eastern European homeland of Krakozia, Viktor becomes a citizen of Nowhere: A coup has rendered Krakozia nonexistent and his passport invalid. Not knowing what else to do with him, airport commandant Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) confines Viktor to the expansive airport terminal. Frank is aghast that Viktor takes his edict literally, but then Viktor comes from a country where disobeying authority often results in a quick execution. Exacerbating Viktor’s dilemma, and providing ample opportunity for cheap humor, is the fact that he doesn’t speak English, at least not at first. (Within days, Viktor teaches himself enough English to suss out the food court.) For reasons of contrived convenience, there isn’t a single person around who speaks Russian, or any of the other Slavic languages Viktor speaks, to act as translator.

To make a long movie short (and Niccol’s story would’ve been much wittier as a short film), resourceful Viktor outmaneuvers airport security, triumphs over adversity (by returning carts for enough quarters to buy food), becomes part of a community (composed of three airport-staff misfits), falls in love with a lovelorn stewardess (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and gets a job and climbs the social ladder. All within the confines of the terminal, which is meant to be a stand-in for the immigrant haven of New York City except that it resembles nothing else except a shopping emporium with departure gates. And that Viktor’s three friends are too childish to take seriously, especially the Indian janitor (Barry Shabaka-Henley) who likes to watch people slip on wet, soapy floors. And that his love object is an adulterous nincompoop who is mostly used as a shill for the stores (from Payless to Hugo Boss) whose prominence in the dialogue qualifies as mini-commercials. Every experience Viktor has is fake, sentimental, or moronic.

While Viktor embarks on the sacred errand that brought him to New York—one that involves a resealed can of Planter’s cashews—Frank, a by-the-book bureaucrat appealingly resigned to the chaos of managing a facility large enough to rival Viktor’s homeland, is suddenly turned into a hissable villain intent on getting Viktor locked up. And for apparently for no other reason than that this fantasy island of capitalism has to have a conflict (Tucci, so often witty in throwaway roles, doesn’t disguise his disgust with the material). The Terminal has more in common with a Hugo Boss suit coat than any previous Spielberg movie: a shoddy, name-brand product designed solely to make money.

—Ann Morrow

Seconds

The Stepford Wives
Directed by Frank Oz

Who can forget watching the 1970s Stepford Wives, in which raven-haired beauty Katharine Ross slowly began to realize that the mild feminism to which she and friend Paula Prentiss practiced was enough to send the menfolk to the tool shed for an out-and-out rehaul of idealized womanhood. That movie was downright creepy, especially as it evoked an all-too-real sense of fear at the encroachment into domestic tranquility, of things like urban decay, gang violence and, well, poor and nonwhite people. There goes the neighborhood, indeed.

Frank Oz’s remake of the same, this time scripted by Paul Rudnick, veers away from the horrific and toward the funny, as in “Hey, Martha, did you catch that one?” Yes, whereas the old Stepford was dark and ultimately forbidding, despite the clean houses, today’s Stepford is a cacophony of loud voices and even louder palettes. This is an oasis to which its citizens—Mattel-like wives in Lanz sundresses and lumpy husbands who don’t appear to work—have escaped. In the case of Joanna Eberhardt (Nicole Kidman) and her milquetoast hubby Walter (Matthew Broderick), the reason for flight from the metropolis is, on surface, her mental collapse following the inglorious short-circuiting of her high powered television career. In reality, it’s more a matter of getting back to the basics, revisiting family and forgetting about the rat race.

All of which seems very easy to do in a town like Stepford, whose houses are like idealized versions of the abodes of the rich and famous. As mentioned, nobody appears to have a job, and while Oz gives no evidence of household or garden help, everything gleams and the wives—er, robots—are downright happy. Rudnick’s script, initially, offers subtle zingers that penetrate our mass- culture, consumerist society, and that to a very small extent, make us question our assumptions about what it means to be happy, successful, or fulfilled, particularly if you happen to be a woman. Unfortunately, such moments quickly disappear from the screen, and we’re left with the “madcap” antics of Joanna and her new friends Bobbi (Bette Midler), one half of the town’s only Jewish couple, and Roger (Roger Bart), one half of the town’s only gay couple.

Apparently, the filmmakers had a lot of difficulty deciding how to end the thing, and I’ve read that as many as four different conclusions were shot. If that’s the case, I’m at a loss to explain the choice of the keeper (spoiler alert), in which Joanna and Walter, in a rare show of masculine fortitude, join forces, à la the Avengers, to unmask head Stepford honcho Mike (Christopher Walken, suitably creepy) and bring back to harmony the natural forces of overachieving women and the duds they love. The whole things comes across as very rushed, as if Oz and company lacked the verve or maybe just the imagination to go all out and satirize something, whether it be marriage, sexuality or the like. Give me the low budget of the former Stepford Wives, not to mention the infinitely more interesting Katharine Ross, than this pale imitation any day.

—Laura Leon


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