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I know you are but what am I: The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie.

Absorbing
By Laura Leon

The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie
Directed by Stephen Hillenburg

Having children lets you rediscover the joy of experiences like jumping in a pile of leaves, or the beauty of books like Goodnight Moon. It also gives you a front seat in discovering new fads. Some, like Pokemon, leave you perplexed; but others, notably SpongeBob SquarePants, are utterly delightful.

Created by Stephen Hillenburg, who also directed and cowrote (along with what appears to be a small army) this film, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is based on a Nickelodeon TV staple as notable for its hallucinogenic color scheme as for its zany characters. The title character (Tom Kenny) is a perpetually sunny fellow who finds great joy in being the best grill chef at the Krabby Patty. In the movie, SpongeBob’s excitement over the opening of a Krabby Patty II, and the seemingly sure bet that he will be named manager by Mr. Krab (Clancy Brown), is deflated in short, embarrassing order, when he finds out that Squidward (Rodger Bumpass) has gotten the job. This results in a marathon crying binge, which then turns into an orgy of ice-cream floats shared with best friend Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke). In the meantime, King Neptune’s crown is stolen by the evil Plankton (Patrick Lawrence), who uses the theft as a ruse to destroy Mr. Krab’s business. Following a hangover-induced diatribe against Mr. Krab, SpongeBob snaps back to his usual self and agrees to retrieve the crown from the dangerous Shell City, thereby saving Mr. Krab’s life.

As is often the case with television cartoons that go big-screen, this movie looks kind of awkward in the new format. Nevertheless, it’s something you won’t notice long if you just settle back and let the insanity wash over you. Alec Baldwin voices a finned bounty killer, set on SpongeBob’s trail by Plankton. Scarlett Johansson is the voice of the bespectacled and wise mermaid daughter of Neptune (Jeffrey Tambor), who, himself, can’t get over a penchant for executions. Best of all is a live-action cameo by none other than David Hasselhoff, who takes his cue in true Baywatch form, running over the sand to help SpongeBob and Patrick. The scenes in which this very game actor swims and, well, jet-propels himself over the waters, with the animated characters holding onto his body hair, are hysterical.

Somehow, Hillenburg has fashioned together a “plausible” (by SpongeBob standards) plot that works in this expanded time frame, while retaining the show’s ingenuity, wit and, of course, SpongeBob’s heartfelt determination to prove that he is the most immature creature out there. Trust me on this—that’s a good thing.

What Art Thou?

Stage Beauty
Directed by Richard Eyre

Set during the reign of King Charles II, who reopened England’s theaters after 18 years of Puritan repression, Stage Beauty aspires to be an artful exploration of gender roles—at a time when gender roles weren’t exactly etched in stone. Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from his play and directed by Richard Eyre (who was much more assured with Iris), this uneven 17th-century romp suffers in comparison to its obvious inspiration, Shakespeare in Love. Here, we have Shakespeare out of fashion: The king, a debauched fop (Rupert Everett), is bored of tragedies and wants some “thrills and chills.” The royal whim creates a dilemma for theater owner Mr. Betterton (Tom Wilkinson), who plays Othello opposite the incomparable Desdemona of actor Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup). Ned is proclaimed “the most beautiful woman on the stage” by Samuel Pepys (Hugh Bonneville), but he only does tragedies.

The setup, a fictionalized mishmash of real people and events, is more interesting than Stage Beauty’s main act, which is the conflicted and competitive attraction between Ned and his ambitious dresser, Mrs. Margaret “Maria” Hughes (Claire Danes). Maria is secretly training to be an actress, even though it’s illegal for women to perform in public. She’s also secretly in love with Ned, but her adoration turns to spite after she witnesses him with his lover and patron, the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin). Lucky for her, the king’s lowborn mistress, Nell Gwyn (Zoe Tupper), convinces the king to lift the edict against women onstage, giving Maria a chance to outshine Ned as Desdemona. Shoved out of the spotlight by the novelty of real women playing women, Ned becomes a degraded has-been. Until he discovers his inner man, that is.

For a story set in the jubilantly populist world of Restoration Theater, Stage Beauty is rather grim. Eyre’s heavy-handed attempts to make the film authentic (close-ups of steaming horse manure) and bawdy (witless use of four-letter Anglo-Saxonisms) serve as jarring footnotes to the sumptuous production and costuming. And the grotesque, lecherous theater patron (Richard Griffiths) who exacts revenge on Ned’s haughtiness is not the most unlikable character. Stage Beauty’s fatal flaw, however, is the unconvincing relationship between Maria and Ned, which is parlayed at a histrionic pitch and made overly complicated in order to present all the conundrums of a relationship in which the man is more himself as a woman, and the woman is (unintentionally) a mess of contradictions. Although Crudup is proof that a beautiful man doesn’t always make for a beautiful woman, he’s movingly lyrical as a femme, especially when Ned describes the allure of female role-playing. Danes practically pulls a muscle trying to convey her Shakespearean talents, but even so, it’s hard to tell if Maria is a bad actress or just badly acted while acting.

After their dual reversals of fortune, the story gets around to its two raisons d’etre. One is the arrival—several centuries ahead of schedule—of realism in drama. The other is Ned’s sincere answer of “I don’t know” when Maria asks him what he is. The line falls as flat as a pork-pie hat compared to the impassioned “I don’t care what you are!” blurted out by James Garner to Julie Andrews in the gender farce Victor/Victoria. Still, Eyre is no hack, and the film does have its charms. Chief among them is Everett as the pleasure-loving Charles II, whose shrewd insights are well and wittily written. Stealing Stage Beauty in his every scene, Everett makes the King the thing.

—Ann Morrow


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