Stages of Life -- Three satisfying autumn films
By JOSEPH CUNEEN
A movie columnist is at the mercy of Hollywood moguls who glut the summer market with action spectaculars and give us an excess of possibilities before Christmas. Since their research shows that the back-to-school period is a bad time to build major successes, there are fewer big films demanding attention right now.
This has its advantages, making it more possible to take a chance on movies I might otherwise have missed, of which Buena Vista Social Club (Artisan Entertainment) is a joyous example. Some of you may be familiar with producer Ry Cooders 1996 hit recording by that name, featuring wonderful but long-neglected Cuban musicians and singers. In 1998 there was a second recording session in Havana, followed by concerts in Amsterdam, Netherlands, and New York. Director Wim Wenders went along to make a movie of the proceedings. In view of my vast ignorance about Cuban music, its an unlikely beat for me to cover, but friends of impeccable taste insisted I shouldnt miss the film.
They were right. The happiness of these elderly musicians in sharing their talents is infectious from the start. Wenders camera follows them walking proudly through Havanas back streets, expressing their camaraderie in the recording studio and recalling anecdotes from their past as the stately architecture of an earlier era provides an appropriate background.
Wenders takes his time and gives us a chance to study faces: 90-year-old composer-guitarist Compay Segundo smiles as he says hes been smoking cigars for 85 years; octogenarian Ibrahim Ferrer carefully explains the details of the household altar he maintains in honor of St. Lazarus; and 74-year-old Rubén González plays elegant variations on the piano as an accompaniment for an irresistible group of young dancers and gymnasts.
Theirs is a folk music of power and sophistication, its roots century-old among a people far from the capital. The singers believe in the passion they communicate; they have suffered but they have lost neither dignity nor delight in an open sensuality. In the song Silentio, it seems all too possible that the flowers would die if they knew of the pain the singers have endured, but we also know that pride in their art continues to sustain them.
Unlike Buena Vista, a surprise hit with limited distribution, Bowfinger (Universal) got maximum visibility and acceptance from Day 1. It would be hard to miss popularity with Steve Martin in the title role as a producer-director who has little going for him except an insane self-confidence, and Eddie Murphy as both Kit Ramsey, the unavailable star around whom Bowfinger shoots his movie without Kit knowing it, and Jiff Ramsey, his goofy-looking brother with glasses who is down on his luck.
Bowfingers accountant Afrim (Adam Alexi-Malle) has written Chubby Rain, a screenplay about space aliens hiding in drops of water, prompting the delusional promoter to rush to the Mexican border to round up frightened illegal immigrants -- I want the best damn crew we can afford! Before long we see these apprentice technicians absorbed in the latest issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, the avant-garde film review.
Kit Ramsey may be hard to contact, especially since his psychological uncertainties are being exploited by Terry Stricter (Terence Stamp), who presides with absolute authority over a religious cult for the wealthy. (One example of his spiritual counsel to Kit: There is no giant foot trying to squash you.)
Meanwhile Jiff, who thought he had been hired just to run errands, is asked to play his famous brother crossing a Los Angeles freeway during the rush hour. He thinks theyre all stunt drivers; we know theyre not. Its one of the craziest, funniest bits in a movie this year. The targets are admittedly obvious, but director Frank Oz (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) has a good sense of pace and Martin is obviously having a grand time debunking the pretensions of moviemakers and the very idea of movie reality.
Carol (Christine Baranski) believes she is playing passionate scenes for an art-house classic but admits that she would like to meet her leading man. There is also the naive Daisy who rushes into the Bowfinger menagerie determined to be a star even if it means throwing herself at anyone who might be a springboard to advancement. Her high-minded response to Bowfingers inquiry as to whether she would be willing to do a particularly kinky sex scene is a marvelous send-up of adult movie hypocrisy. Martin is not only a good actor but also a satirical writer who pinpoints his targets perfectly.
Murphy is also in top form whether as the accommodating Jiff who accepts Bowfingers crazy assignments, or as the terrified super-celebrity who has to repeat Renfros mantra: I feel like I might ignite, but probably I wont.
Even if Steve Martin is coasting, hes written the best space alien movie in years.
Outside Providence (Miramax) may be fake realism but its surprisingly likeable. Its growing-up story dumps a dope-taking, working-class Pawtucket, R.I., teenager, Tim Dunph Dunphy (Shawn Hatosy), down in the lush Connecticut prep school world of Cornwall Academy, circa 1974. There his brash indifference to rules and his ability to obtain pot win him a degree of acceptance among his upper-class schoolmates, and he falls in love with Amy (Jane Weston), a highly motivated young woman headed for Brown University. (Dunph is so naive he tells her, Theres one of those in Providence, too.)
The movie is based on a novel by Peter Farrelly, and both Peter and Bobby Farrelly are credited -- along with director Michael Corrente -- with the script. Those familiar with Theres Something About Mary will not be surprised by the relentless obscenity of both Dunphs Pawtucket buddies and his fathers bigoted poker-playing regulars. But the sweetness of Outside Providence outweighs its raunchiness. We observe Dunphs vulnerable nature as his bicycle pulls along his crippled brothers wheelchair so that the latter can complete a newspaper delivery route, and we easily believe he has learned to see Amy as more than a sex object. Most convincing of all is Alec Baldwin as Dunphs widower-father, a complex figure whose need to express affection has been too long repressed.
The movies weakness is that not only is the story told from a young male point of view, but no one connected with it seems to have a clue about women. Amy is simply a prep school boys dream girl. Though supposedly the smartest and most unapproachable young woman at Cornwall, she pairs off with the unschooled, lower-class Dunph without skipping a beat and even appears unfazed when she meets his rowdy Pawtucket crowd. Even worse is the emotional exploitation of Dunphs dead mother, who becomes merely a memory of a beautiful victim.
Though the realism of Outside Providence is highly selective, the most outrageous of the young Pawtucket crowd, the appropriately named Drugs Delaney (Jon Abrahams) is memorably alive, an edgy figure who nevertheless gains our sympathy. One of the movies most successful comic bits occurs when his hilariously outspoken letter falls into the hands of Cornwalls dean, who reads it aloud to a squirming Dunph. In general, however, the prep school scenes seem flat. Dunphs classmates are merely types, and Mr. Funderberk (Tim Crowe), the school disciplinarian, is such an extreme caricature that it is hard to understand his motivation at the climax.
Despite these limitations, the upbeat good humor of Outside Providence carries the day. Hatosy makes us care about Dunph, and Corrente, who grew up in Pawtucket, clearly identifies with the material. Best of all, the movie doesnt try to resolve everything; by the end, Dunph has learned a few things, but he still has a lot of growing up to do.
Joseph Cunneen is NCRs regular movie reviewer.
National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 1999