In Praise of Noah
Without Wyle, there'd be no "Myth"
By Noel Murray, Donna Bowman, and Jim Ridley
OCTOBER 27, 1997: Noah Wyle's winning combination of open-faced, sincere good looks and quietly desperate awkwardness makes him utterly watchable on ER. He's the well-meaning rich kid who just can't quite get it together. He's willing to reach out to people--to care--until his feelings get hurt, when he quickly pulls away.
In writer-director Bart Freundlich's debut film The Myth of Fingerprints, Wyle sticks with his strengths, playing a mildly troubled young man who returns home for the first time in three years to endure a family Thanksgiving. Joining him are a handful of brothers and sisters, most notably a brittle sister played by Julianne Moore (another watchable young actor who excels at being placidly uncomfortable). Amid a weekend of tense dinner conversations, the various siblings make stabs at reconciling with the root of their vague unhappiness--an aloof, alcoholic lech of a father played by Roy Scheider.
The Myth of Fingerprints has a memorable look, framed by the crisp, snow-covered landscapes of the American Northeast. Unfortunately, Freundlich's script and direction fall into the usual traps that befall a young artist, mainly an unsubstantiated faith in the power of his own words. He relies on pseudo-sophisticated, presumably witty dialogue about sex, relationships, and the pleasures of childhood, then breaks up this lightweight repartee with lengthy pauses that are meant to add poignancy but never really do.
Freundlich's main failing is that he can't ever convince us that these disconnected characters are in any way a family. They're all so busy being chilly that we never see them relate to each other at all--in either a positive or a negative way. They simply wander in front of the camera, air their petty gripes, and then wander out of frame, where they are quickly forgotten.
In fact, the only actor who's really able to produce anything worthwhile from the script is Wyle, whose character may have the biggest beef with Scheider; he also seems to be the only one willing to get over it. He adds warmth, while the rest of the cast gets frostier by the minute. The film begins when he comes home early, and it ends when he leaves without saying goodbye. That's Freundlich's way of acknowledging that without the promise of more Wyle, there's no reason to keep filming.--Noel Murray
Second-hand genesOnly a few movies have managed to convey believably both the menace of a future society and the courageous resistance of some of its members. The rebellion portrayed is usually trite and cornball, an easy idealism that believes in the power of the human spirit over all threatening forces. There's a reason that the most compelling vision of the future in literature continues to be 1984--we know the deadening power of totalitarian bureaucracies too well to believe in simple escapes from them.
Gattaca's protagonist, Vincent (Ethan Hawke), dreams of a very literal escape; he's in training for a flight to one of Saturn's moons. In an age of instant DNA sequencing from any sample of tissue or bodily fluid, however, the only people admitted to the Gattaca corporation's space program are the genetically perfect, engineered in the womb. Vincent is a "love child" with a high probability of heart problems and early death, so he buys the identity of Jerome, physical paragon and certified genius. When one of the flight directors is murdered on the job, the physical evidence vacuumed up at the scene threatens to expose Vincent as an "in-valid" only days before takeoff.
The assumed-identity plot, with its threat of constant disaster hidden in Vincent's dead skin cells, is the consistently exciting part of Gattaca. Ethan Hawke, who has a tendency to overestimate his own charisma as an actor, is effective when restrained by a plot that requires him to blend into a robotic, homogeneous work force. The credit sequence shows Vincent's methodical daily preparation as he attaches fake fingerprints to his digits; a cache of Jerome's blood is hidden underneath for the instant blood test at the door, while Jerome's urine is strapped to his thigh for the unannounced sampling. Writer-director Andrew Niccol subtly evokes a whole society that trusts its computer identity checks more than its common sense. When the murder investigation reveals that in-valid Vincent is on the grounds of Gattaca, a futuristic corporation, detective Alan Arkin never thinks to compare his picture to the actual faces of employees, preferring instead to rely on a blood test.
Just as impressive is the production design, which reaches back to '50s automobile shapes and Frank Lloyd Wright architecture to create a look that we instantly recognize as futuristic precisely because it's retro. This device may be borrowed from Brazil--a future cobbled together from bits of old technology--but here it's given a streamlined, stratified look. Even the fuzzy, flickering computer screens have a subtext: No society has it all together when it can't solve the vertical hold problem.
Given these accomplishments, it's frustrating that Gattaca has such a simplistic, pop-psychological concept of Vincent's dream. For one thing, his escape is pretty selfish--he has no interest in standing up to the "genomists" who discriminated against him; he just wants to run away from them. Yet somehow the dream liberates everyone who touches Vincent, from Jerome to love interest Uma Thurman to the doctor who takes his urine samples. Just as we're getting excited about Vincent's identity crisis, just when the police are on his trail, the movie gets all misty about the power of the human spirit to overcome the determinism of our genes. Niccol probably thought this theme made his movie more than a mere thriller. But Gattaca already has the elements of an uncommonly good thriller without being made into a humanist manifesto.
Brazil says that our only escape is in our minds; 1984 says even that can be denied us. Gattaca sees our freedom in the stars--an idea that, like the movie's art decoration, comes straight from the golden age of science fiction. The only problem is, the movie doesn't understand we've outgrown that idea, and there's no going back.--Donna Bowman
Bleak houseThe best reason to see the macabre black comedy The House of Yes is a daredevil performance by the young actress Parker Posey, who gets one of those fluky once-in-a-lifetime showcases that an actress should play, well, only once in a lifetime. Posey plays Jackie-O, a cunning little sociopath festering in genteel perversity with her mother (Genevieve Bujold) and brother (Freddie Prinze Jr.) in an airless Washington, D.C., mansion. A massive trauma befell the family on the day JFK was gunned down in Dallas, and ever since, Jackie-O has prowled the house in a pillbox hat and a murderously volatile temper. Unfortunately for her other, relatively normal brother (Josh Hamilton), he has chosen the 20th anniversary of the assassination to bring his fiance (a remarkably winning Tori Spelling) home for Thanksgiving--against Jackie-O's hitherto unchallenged wishes.
The script (adapted by director Mark Waters from a play by Wendy MacLeod) is the contemporary absurdist version of what used to be called "the well-made play": smartly constructed, clever, and filled with facile ironies, quirks, and grotesque twists that hint at larger meanings that aren't there. (It's reminiscent of the cult horror-comedy Spider Baby, which has more surprises.) The dialogue is witty but mannered and arch, and banter that would crackle onstage sounds merely sing-songy when chopped up by editing.
But Posey, a rising talent who's all but ubiquitous on the Sundance circuit, galvanizes the brittle gamesmanship of the material. Her eyes twinkle with malice, and she flicks her nastiest lines like a riding crop; she's almost demonically alert to Jackie-O's cruel wit and mercurial mood swings. Her performance is pitched only a notch lower than a dog whistle, and you couldn't bear it for a minute longer than the movie's admirably short running time. Give both her and The House of Yes credit, though, for not overextending their welcome.--Jim Ridley
Deviled hamIn a recent episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a character described George Clooney's acting style thusly: "Head bob, smile, head bob, head bob, smile." That puts Clooney's acting range about five gestures ahead of Keanu Reeves. As an uptight lawyer who falls under Satan's spell in The Devil's Advocate, Reeves goes beyond stiff to create a new standard for screen rigidity. He's a cross between a plywood golem and a cereal-box cutout of Al Gore.
To be fair, Reeves is working at a disadvantage: Nobody told him he was making a comedy. Who knew? The Devil's Advocate starts out as a Grisham-esque courtroom drama, detours into splattery horror, and winds up as a hooty kitschfest, as Reeves is seduced into the inner sanctum of "John Milton" (tee-hee), a high-powered attorney who caters to the world's agents of disorder. After plucking Reeves from a low-level Florida courtroom, Milton, played by Al Pacino, ensconces him and his wife in a posh Manhattan apartment and bedazzles them with high living. Soon, however, the young marrieds are receiving subtle hints that something is awry--for one thing, all their newfound friends keep morphing into reptilian gargoyles.
The first half of the movie is trashy fun, but the director, Taylor Hackford, spoils it with needlessly gory violence, dopey sexism, and cornball shock effects. In interviews, Pacino has claimed that the movie is intended to be funny, but it's hard to laugh when the one genuinely likable character gets raped and beaten and has her ovaries ripped out. In place of a coherent tone, Hackford ladles a generic big-budget gloss over horror, farce, and domestic drama alike. The entire movie appears to have been doused with floor wax.
In Speed and A Walk in the Clouds, Reeves was well cast in roles that emphasized his endearingly dorky earnestness. Here, though, his gung-ho seriousness makes him look like the butt of a massive practical joke. He wouldn't seem so wooden if he hadn't been paired with Pacino, who trundles out his entire wardrobe of oddball mannerisms: the juicy cackle, the shouted emphaSES that COME out of noWHERE, the line read...ings frac...tured by weird...pauses. Pacino's hambone glee is something to see, but his mugging turns the movie into instant camp. We have seen the ruler of hell, and he is Cosmo Kramer.
As Reeves' wife, the exciting new actress Charlize Theron is touching and sympathetic--so much so that you dislike the movie even more when you see what it has in store for her. Or maybe it doesn't. (You know a movie is creatively bankrupt when it swipes a plot device from Dallas.) Apart from Theron's presence, some of Pacino's more amusing outbursts, and Bruno Rubeo's ornate production design, The Devil's Advocate is notable only for the real-life celebrities who, for God knows what reason, agreed to appear as Satan's associates: Don King, music attorney Alan Grubman, and Sen. Alphonse D'Amato. Someone should warn the Devil he's keeping some pretty sleazy company.--Jim Ridley
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