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At the Movies

When you’re talking dialogue, it’s hard to top the Bard


Pity the poor movie-reviewer at holiday time! While the rest of you were drinking eggnogs and unwrapping presents, I was rushing desperately from one theater to the next as producers kept opening new pictures in time to qualify for Academy Awards.

First came You’ve Got Mail (Warner), which makes you want to move to Manhattan’s upper West Side, where everything is in bloom and there are street fairs everyday. Unfortunately, though Meg Ryan has charming mannerisms and Tom Hanks makes even his business tycoon character attractive, director Nora Ephron (who also wrote the screenplay with her sister Delia) has little feel for romantic comedy. (For the record, I also thought “Sleepless in Seattle,” written by Nora Ephron and starring Ryan and Hanks, overrated.)

The premise, as the title suggests, is that people can now get a love affair going via E-mail, and the movie spends a lot of time reading the exchanges between Joe Fox (Hanks), who is opening a mega-bookstore, and Kathleen Kelly (Ryan), who owns a small children’s bookstore in the same neighborhood. They instinctively dislike each other in their casual contacts but don’t know who they’re corresponding with. The trouble is it’s hard to believe their letters would make them want to meet each other.

Though Kathleen complains about high-tech bookselling, the movie doesn’t really pursue the story’s widespread socioeconomic implications. Her store folds, but not to worry -- she gets both Joe and a job as a children’s book editor.

You can learn how romantic comedy has gone downhill by going to your video store and renting “Shop Around the Corner” (1940), the Ernst Lubitsch film on which “You’ve Got Mail” is based. The lovers in that classic -- Margaret Sullivan and James Stewart -- work and bicker in the same Budapest, Hungary, shop and write letters that express their deep loneliness and awkward longings. One is both amused and deeply satisfied that after an hour of misunderstandings they finally discover to whom they’ve been writing.

The movie’s notion of up-to-date wit is for Tom to present the little kids he’s taking out for the day, his father’s son and his grandfather’s daughter, by saying, “We’re ... an American family.” Fortunately, there’s a feel-good soundtrack, including some fine songs by Harry Nilsson.

Shakespeare in Love (Miramax) will offend purists but is far more entertaining. Director John Madden keeps things moving at such speed you’ll probably go along with its silly premise that Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) was suffering a severe case of writer’s block until he met (and bedded) Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow).

After accepting advance to write a potboiler, “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter,” he can’t write a line and rushes to “confession” to a Renaissance psychic -- which offers a pseudo-psychoanalytic pretext for sexual wordplay. After Shakespeare catches a glimpse of the beautiful Viola, however, he is able to write again.

Though a marriage with the foppish Lord Wessex (Colin Firth) has already been arranged, Viola desperately wants to be an actress, an ambition forbidden in Elizabethan England. She pastes on a little mustache and auditions for the mostly unwritten play. Shakespeare, impressed by her talent, follows the “boy” home -- and is delighted to learn he was mistaken. A mad passion ensues, with nude lovers seeming to speak in iambic pentameter. Though textbooks list more pedestrian French and Italian sources for “Romeo and Juliet,” the movie wants you to believe that what you’re seeing is the real story behind the play.

All this can be accepted as a harmless joke, filled out with plot twists and surprises, the rowdy background of 1590s London theater and a good deal of Shakespearean language, with the opening of “R&J” as climax. But “Shakespeare in Love” wants it both ways, pretending to the high seriousness of Shakespeare’s first major tragedy. Though Fiennes and Paltrow read their lines adequately, rushing into a brief affair doesn’t make them star-crossed adolescent idealists, ready to die for love.

The screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard has many amusingly deliberate anachronisms, with Stoppard probably responsible for the in-group wit regarding the theater of the time. (Christopher Marlowe throws Shakespeare some help in his plotting; John Webster is presented as a 13-year-old who hangs around the theater because he likes violence.) Judi Dench is superb as a take-charge Queen Elizabeth. Her declaration that true love can never be convincingly presented on the stage shapes the film’s outcome.

Madden rises to the challenge of making the first performance of “Romeo and Juliet” a rousing play-within-a-movie. The actor assigned to speak the prologue gets stage-fright, the crowd is delighted by the swordplay and Elizabeth is in tears at Juliet’s death. By the end you realize that, even in romantic comedy, there are advantages in drawing on Shakespeare for dialogue rather than Ephron.

A Civil Action (Touchstone) has all the necessary ingredients for successful courtroom drama: a fast-moving story keyed to a topical issue (polluted water), big stars (John Travolta and Robert Duvall), and a praiseworthy sense of the complexities of both justice and human character.

Directed by Steven Zaillian -- who also wrote a deft screenplay based on Jonathan Harr’s book -- the movie gets audiences involved with the real-life case of Woburn, Mass., whose children had developed leukemia from the area’s poisoned water. Travolta is Jan Schlichtmann, a ruthless, personal-injury lawyer interested in fat settlements from wealthy defendants. “A Civil Action” is about his gradual transformation, ending up with his complete identification with Woburn’s case.

What’s good about the movie is that it makes the complexities of the civil court system both real and exciting; it is neither an exposé nor saccharine praise for the way the law works. It shows the same complexity in Schlichtmann, whose hotheadedness leads him to make mistakes in court and whose later convictions grow out of stubborn pride as much as idealism.

If I found the movie too slick and Travolta’s development somewhat artificial, I enjoyed the courtroom battles and respected the decision not to make the ending much more upbeat than it was in real life.

Though the audience is easily led to root against polluters like W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods, especially since Schlichtmann’s small firm has to go deeply in debt to carry on the legal fight, the most interesting character in “A Civil Action” is corporate lawyer Jerome Facher. Robert Duvall rates another Academy nomination for his portrayal of a shrewdly humorous Harvard law professor whose passion is the Boston Red Sox. One comes to realize that this eccentric individualist is both dedicated to the law and deeply aware of its inevitable limitations.

Sam Raimi, previously known for horror movies, has directed a bloody yet solid melodrama, A Simple Plan (Paramount), that spells out the horrific effects of greed. Since the theater was sold out the first two times I tried to see it, I probably expected too much. No, it’s not nearly as good as “The Treasure of Sierra Madre.”

The main reason is that its central character, Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton), changes from reliable worker at a feed and grain mill to manipulative murderer without going through a real process of change. The college-educated Hank, his sweet, unemployable brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and Jake’s friend Lou (Brent Briscoe), a 40-year-old, hard-drinking failure, wander through the snow and discover a small smashed-up plane carrying $4.4 million.

Lou’s instinct is to keep it. Jake is prepared to go along, but Hank, after first saying they have to inform the police, concocts a “simple plan”: He’ll keep the money and hide it, waiting to see if it will be claimed. Though the men’s temptation is understandable, the subsequent pattern of bad luck and increasing violence seems too predictable. Hank’s wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda), who is about to have a baby, first says that the money should be returned but ends up a determined schemer. Her character change is hard to believe because she’s in so few scenes.

A morality tale, “A Simple Plan” certainly doesn’t make its killings attractive, but many will find its rising level of violence disturbing. Most effective is Raimi’s suggestive use of the snowy, Midwest background at the opening, where a fox is about to pounce on the chickens and crows are a threatening presence. The acting is fine, especially the scenes between the brothers, which build to a harrowing climax. Billy Bob Thornton deserves an Academy nomination as supporting actor; his final act of self-sacrifice gives this “crime does not pay” movie a moment of greatness.

Rushmore (scheduled to open in February after playing for a week in New York to qualify for Academy Awards) exhibits a fresh sense of humor by making its central character, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), a nerdish but brilliant 15-year-old at the private school for which the movie is named.

Max, who wears thick glasses, a blazer and beret, spends so much time directing the extracurricular clubs at the school that he is about to be expelled. And he has fallen hopelessly in love with the school’s lovely first-grade teacher, Miss Cross (Olivia Williams), a young widow. So has his older friend, rich, unhappily married Mr. Blume (played by Bill Murray, who has his best part since “Groundhog Day”).

Max has more to do in the movie than Blume: He gets the school to reinstate Latin because Miss Cross says it’s important, insults her boyfriend at dinner, fakes an injury and enters her room through the window, and is constantly at war with his conformist, middle-class schoolmates. As the permanently defeated Blume, Murray works in wonderful tandem with the resilient Max. Blume is as much excited by Max as he is depressed by his own two sons, who also attend Rushmore.

Blume seems an unlikely steel tycoon and doesn’t have much more idea of how to court Miss Williams than Max does, but she responds to his vulnerability and basic decency. Although it offers no message, “Rushmore” is illuminating on class: There’s a lovely bit late in the movie when Max, who has pretended that his father (Seymour Cassel) is a neurosurgeon, introduces Blume to his sweetly puzzled parent -- who contentedly runs a barber shop.

Director Wes Anderson -- who wrote the screenplay with Owen Wilson -- deserves credit for getting his contrasting lead characters to work so well together. The movie eventually assigns Max an admiring Asian girlfriend his own age, which seems contrived. Fortunately there is a satisfyingly explosive ending with Max putting on his play about Vietnam, using real dynamite. Although you may be as confused and disbelieving as Blume at all this, you’ll probably have a good time.

Joseph Cunneen, NCR’s regular movie reviewer and husband of writer Sally Cunneen, can be contacted at scunn24219@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, January 22, 1999