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Nashville Scene The Ugly American

A winning movie about losers

By Jim Ridley, Donna Bowman, and Noel Murray

SEPTEMBER 28, 1998:  As Billy Brown, a just-released ex-con who spent five years in prison paying off a busted bet, Vincent Gallo delivers the artistic credo of Buffalo '66 dragging a kidnapped girl into a photo booth. "Simple pictures," he snaps, not even allowing her to fix her hair. "Simple pictures. This is not glamour. No glamour." Odd words, especially from a rail-thin poster boy who posed for Calvin Klein ads before he joined the movie racket full-time. But there is beauty sometimes in the absence of beauty--in Raymond Carver's gorgeously plain, insinuating prose; in the homely rasp of Tom Waits' voice; in Kathryn Schoepflin's starkly appraising paintings of industrial decay.

That holds true for Gallo himself, a model, musician, and indie leading man (Palookaville) whose pale, wild-eyed, strikingly pointed face calls to mind a vampire prince--if not a tuna-fish mold of Valentino's death mask. Yet when he's onscreen, it's hard to look at anyone else: He makes conventionally attractive actors just seem blah. Buffalo '66, his scroungy, funny, and exciting first film as writer and director, has exactly the same kind of anti-glamour. From the start, it's so grungy that it's weirdly captivating. By the time Gallo's lo-fi joyride cruises to a stop, you've been so beguiled by its surprises, wrong turns, and chance encounters that you'd be disappointed by something more carefully worked out.

Gallo's Billy has been on a losing streak without end, dating back to the day he lost 10 large on a Buffalo Bills game when their ace place-kicker bungled a field goal. To clear the debt, the bookie (just the right amount of Mickey Rourke for seasoning) gets Billy to take the rap for a cohort's crime. After five years in jail, Billy vows to plug the place-kicker with a teensy little pistol he's got stashed away. First, though, he has to find a bathroom, and after that he must find a "wife" to show to his horrible parents (a creepily amusing Ben Gazzara and Anjelica Huston). He snatches a tap-dance student, Layla (Christina Ricci), who proves to be a willing accomplice--even a loving one.

Billy can't get over the past, and neither can anyone else: His Bills-obsessed mom hasn't forgiven him for making her miss the big game in '66 (she was in labor), and his dad laments a failed singing career. Even the place-kicker's strip club carries a recorded apology for the missed goal. From cheap hotels to Denny's, the movie's Buffalo never quite moved forward: It's as stubbornly outdated as the prog-rock nuggets on the soundtrack. It's a melancholic world, but Gallo's moviemaking fever takes the chill off.

From the bold opening credits, there's a restless, immodest personality behind every shot, even the ones that seem clumsy or show-offy. Gallo wants us to know the frame ain't big enough to contain his movie: The shape of the frame is always changing or closing in, and sometimes background stories will appear in a separate window. With cinematographer Lance Acord and editor Curtiss Clayton, he plays with slow motion, with jump cuts, with long takes and changing focus; the visual experimentation is inseparable from the movie's anything-goes spirit. Sometimes it's crude--c'mon, a visual comparison between Layla's breasts and a bowling ball in a polisher?--but it's never uninteresting.

Ranting throughout in semi-improvised outbursts, Gallo makes Billy's pettiness explosively comic: He's not above snapping at Layla when she laughs at his bowling, and he's not above sulking when she rolls a strike. The movie might seem grotesquely narcissistic if Gallo didn't allow so much room for the other players. He's especially generous to the amazing Christina Ricci, who for once gets to play a figure of nurturing goodness, and does so in such a radiant way that her baby-doll voluptuousness seems angelic. The ubiquitous Kevin Corrigan has an unsettling cameo as a slow-witted buddy, and Jan-Michael Vincent's brief appearance as a bowling-alley clerk is affecting, if mostly for his ravaged, uncertain presence.

It's hard to tell from Buffalo '66 whether Vincent Gallo has another movie in him: He's dumped in parts of every filmmaker who ever affected him, from Cassavetes to Peter Greenaway, and his quirky road movie zips so widely across the map you can't imagine another framework loose enough to indulge his squirrelly gifts. Be encouraged, however, by a dizzyingly happy ending in which Gallo shows that he finds cataclysmic violence laughable and redemption possible for even the biggest loser. Buffalo '66 may be a mess, but often enough it's a beautiful mess.

--Jim Ridley

Drowning by numbers

If Good Will Hunting and Little Man Tate showed us anything, it's that filmmakers have a hell of a time explaining mathematical genius to us poor slobs in the aisle seats. Darren Aronofsky's sci-fi thriller Pi scoots around this problem by drawing us into the agitated awareness of a brilliant mathematician, Max (Sean Gullette), whose glimpse of a secret numerical order to the universe is wracking his body with blinding headaches and is riddling his mind with paranoia. As in most sci-fi thrillers, the paranoia is justified: A sinister Wall Street cabal and a team of Jewish mystics both want the 216-digit number that flashes teasingly on Max's computer.

Aronofsky is more concerned with the weight of the knowledge than the knowledge itself, which is a bit of a letdown: We wait to have our minds blown with the far-reaching consequences of the numerical pattern--surely that 216-digit whatsit has ramifications for people besides rabbis and stockbrokers--but the movie settles for lengthy chase scenes and nightmarish hallucinations. Thanks to Matthew Libatique's astonishing black-and-white cinematography, though, those scenes are kinetic as hell: They beat up on you with the same shaky amphetamine-freak terror and flesh-metal imagery as the Japanese Tetsuo movies.

Aronofsky plainly has talent, but his resolution is way too conventional for the kind of sound and fury he's packing. It's pretty hooty when you pass through all that cyberpunk intensity and assaultive electronica, and you're left with the dullest of drive-in morals: "There are some things man was not meant to know." (The movie's not terribly different from the Roger Corman vehicle X--The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, right down to the if-thine-eye-offends-thee ending.) Unlike the mystifying number at its core, Pi adds up to much less than the sum of its admittedly dazzling parts.

--Jim Ridley

In the name of the mother

A good story is the first step on the road to a good movie--but as One True Thing demonstrates, it's only the first step. The film takes its story from Anna Quindlen's well-loved novel about a young woman dealing with the terminal illness of her mother; while that's a fine start, dozens of forgotten made-for-TV productions and sappy tearjerkers have fumbled virtually the same premise. The movie succeeds because it doesn't rely on the story alone: It casts a rejuvenated Meryl Streep as the mother and a believable Renee Zellweger as the daughter; it hires the sensitive, unconventional Carl Franklin to direct; and it fills the screen with keenly observed details.

Franklin branches out from his early critical successes in crime-dramas (One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress) to take the helm of what ordinarily would be pigeonholed as a two-hanky "woman's picture." Zellweger plays Ellen Gulden, a writer fighting her way up the career ladder at New York magazine. When she finds out that her mother has cancer, she moves home to care for Mom, a lifelong homemaker and avid decorator who takes pride in community craft projects. Ellen's attempts to keep her writing career alive clash with her unwanted duties at home, and she starts to reevaluate her family life with an adult eye--seeing unexpected strengths in her mother, who has always embarrassed her, and finding unexpected weaknesses in her father (William Hurt), a literature professor who keeps his unfinished novel hidden away like an insurance policy against failure.

The movie unfolds in flashback as Ellen answers an investigator's questions about her mother's death, and there is a moral dilemma lurking in the final minutes. But Franklin and his screenwriter, Karen Croner, avoid the pitfalls of hot-button issue advocacy on the one hand and treacly sentiment on the other. Streep, who made her reputation playing the most serious roles available, seems luminous and feather-light as she surefootedly negotiates the comedy and tragedy of motherhood, trying not to nag even when she doesn't understand or disapproves of Ellen's desires. Zellweger's performance hits just the right notes too: Her character reacts with anger as the partitions between work, play, social life, and duty collapse under the pressure of family life. Only William Hurt, whose acting is too idiosyncratic and unnatural to be ignored, strikes the wrong chord.

But the strength of Franklin's eye for detail--his clear-eyed vision through the temptations of the disease picture and the mother-daughter picture and the chick flick--brings One True Thing safely past all the points where it could have mired down. Mostly, he stays out the way of the emotions that flow so naturally from Zellweger and Streep, keeping the style unobtrusive and the atmosphere intimate. One True Thing is penetrating and satisfying because it treats family and death like the difficult realities they are, not like the usual overworked clichés. Thanks to those extra steps, a good old story feels new again.

--Donna Bowman

Crook and nanny

As The Governess opens, a Jewish family in early 19th-century London has suffered the loss of its patriarch, and the eldest daughter Rosina has been matched for marriage with an elderly fish merchant. But Rosina fancies herself a budding actress, and so she adopts the gentile-sounding name Mary Blackchurch and accepts a position in the household of a Scottish family to earn money for a life on her own.

Minnie Driver plays the strong-willed Rosina/Mary, and it's her fullest performance since she burst onto the scene a few years ago in Circle of Friends. Before her arrival at the Isle of Skye, she's fascinated with London's prostitutes and their worldly attitude toward sex. Pretending to be a Christian triggers the latent actress in Rosina, and she finds it ever easier to indulge her baser fascinations.

She's helped in this regard by the master of the house, a dilettante scientist who's trying to perfect the development process for photography. Tom Wilkinson plays Master Cavendish, who plans to use this nascent art to catalog the wonders of nature. But Rosina is captivated by the potential of photography to create illusions, and between her tutoring sessions with the Cavendishes' daughter, she helps out in the lab and encourages Master Cavendish to detail human beauty. Her recreation of Salome turns out to be too much for him, and he quickly goes from snapping her picture to undoing her stays.

Judging by The Governess, writer-director Sandra Goldbacher has been studying Jane Campion's films. She employs the same unusual color schemes--at once pale and supersaturated--and she betrays the same affection for flat landscapes where the sky mingles playfully with the earth. Most of all, she's attracted to the dreamlike possibilities of her narrative, as she takes a fairly straightforward story and lingers on scenes so long that one forgets there's a story going on at all.

That fitfulness is The Governess's one real failing--it's a useless affectation. There's a spaciness to the film, as though Goldbacher filmed a three-hour movie and then cut out every other scene. There are subplots in The Governess about the Cavendishes' drug-addled elder son, about the vacuous Mistress Cavendish, and about a London cholera epidemic, but these never amount to anything, either thematically or structurally.

What lingers about The Governess, though, is Minnie Driver's gradual immersion into self-deception, which leads her into despair when she realizes (as she must have always known) that she and Master Cavendish can never really be a couple. She knows what they've been doing is inappropriate, but since her pretense has been so successful so long, why couldn't the two of them just keep on pretending? She starts out pretending to be Salome, and soon she learns what the London prostitutes already know.

--Noel Murray

One man's Meany

John Irving's novel A Prayer for Owen Meany is a favorite among certain liberal Christian friends of mine, who respond to the book's emphasis on the power of God to uplift the underdog. Mark Steven Johnson's film Simon Birch has been merely "suggested by A Prayer for Owen Meany"--a polite way of saying that Irving found Johnson's screenplay too wildly divergent from Owen to bear his brainchild's name. It also means that Johnson was free to take Irving's "suggestion" in his own direction.

It's pointless (and somewhat mean-spirited) to compare how the plot of the film differs from the plot of the book. They both share a premise--the friendship between a wealthy bastard boy and a dwarf child as they grow up in the '60s--but Simon ends the dwarf's story abruptly, while Owen expounds upon it against the backdrop of Vietnam. They're fundamentally different tales, with different intentions. Simon Birch's intentions, however, deserve scrutiny.

Simon Birch stars the talented child actor Joseph Mazzello as Joe, the fatherless preteen son of a beautiful, scandalous small-town flibbertigibbet (played by the luminous Ashley Judd). An outsider himself, he relishes his carefree conversations with the town's other youthful outsider--the dirt-poor, obstinate Simon (newcomer Ian Michael Smith, who, like the character he plays, suffers from Morquio's Syndrome). In between talking about girls, playing baseball, swimming, and terrorizing the local Sunday school teacher (Jan Hooks), the two boys investigate the mystery of who Joe's dad might be.

The strong core of Simon Birch is the easy chemistry between Mazzello and Smith, who portray the bonds of juvenile buddydom with an appealing realism that recalls Stand By Me (a connection that Johnson overemphasizes with novelty pop hits and a centerpiece gross-out scene). Their performances are engagingly natural, as is Judd's. (Oliver Platt also shines in his small role as a suitor.) As for the movie they're acting in, it's an episodic crowd-pleaser, with carefully massaged moments of comedy and tragedy. You'll laugh, you'll cry...that sort of thing.

If you ask the average filmgoer what kind of movies they like, most will reflexively peg action and comedy as their genre of choice. But ask what specific movies are their favorites, and audiences tend to lean toward dramas like Simon Birch--sweet tearjerkers about love, death, and growing up. It's hard to begrudge the public fascination with these films, but one wishes that Simon Birch itself weren't so obvious. There's no unique funk to the film, nothing hard or dangerous. Even the foul-mouthed kids are doing an overworked shtick--children swearing is as easy a gag as nuns speaking slang.

The least edgy element of Simon Birch is its focal point: its indistinct, wishy-washy religious theme. Simon himself insists that he is "a miracle," put on this earth for a special purpose. This contention, along with his disdain for church pageantry, earns Simon the wrath of the local pastor (David Strathairn), even though every minister I've ever known would thrill to talk shop with a mind as inquisitive as Simon's. It's more conventional, though, to make the film's man of the cloth a conservative fuddy-duddy; it takes less imagination.

Granted, Simon Birch is not A Prayer for Owen Meany--but why even adapt the work of a writer as inventive as John Irving if you're going to reduce his distinct spiritual viewpoint to cornball plot twists and watery musings about a vague God? Some read Irving's novel and find a powerful story about the intersection of politics, friendship, and faith; Mark Steven Johnson read it and used the opportunity to film a two-hour Hallmark card. Simon Birch's intentions are noble, but its sentiments are paper-thin.

--Noel Murray

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