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At the Movies

Dancing Fools


Back when talkies were still a novelty, Sam Taylor (my uncle) directed Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” and was immediately ridiculed by the critics. This was because the title credits included the line, “Additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.” In view of the freedom taken in adapting the Bard today, I doubt that anyone would notice.

Kenneth Branagh is a proven Shakespearean actor-director, and the memory of 1993’s “Much Ado About Nothing” made me anticipate first-rate entertainment from his new Love’s Labour’s Lost. This early Shakespearean comedy calls for a free approach in any movie adaptation since its pleasure derives largely from the witty, euphuistic debates between the King of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola) and his cronies and the Princess of France (Alicia Silverstone) and her ladies in waiting.

The play’s premise is that the King and his friends swear to devote three years to the study of philosophy, during which they will avoid the company of women. This is obviously an oath that will soon be broken, and Berowne (Branagh) argues strongly against it before reluctantly signing the pact.

As director, Branagh arbitrarily sets the action in an imaginary Navarre of the 1930s and cuts large hunks of the text to make room for song and dance routines. Since the music is that of Jerome Kern, the Gershwins and Irving Berlin, this is a pleasant conceit; the only trouble is that the performers are not very good singers or dancers.

More surprisingly, Branagh hasn’t insisted on high standards of Shakespearean performance from his handsome cast. Admittedly, the poetic conceits are tightly packed and the lines complex, but Alicia Silverstone is particularly beyond her depth.

The low comedy material, which was disappointing in Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” is more successful this time, with Timothy Spall as the braggart Don Armado and Nathan Lane as the clown Costard. The production even finds a pretext for Lane to perform “There’s No Business Like Show Business” in top hat and tails.

Although “Love’s Labour’s Lost” is acceptable summer fun, it blows up its escapist illusions with newsreel reminders of armies mobilizing, and a penultimate sequence with battlefield shots of World War II. Even the most restrained presentation of such a reality makes it hard to savor the sweet melancholy of its final number, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”

Every year longtime New York Times columnist Russell Baker used to confess that he had failed to finish Marcel Proust’s mammoth novel Remembrance of Things Past. I suspect he never did, but now he and many others can achieve cultural respectability in two hours and forty minutes by going to Time Regained, an adaptation of the book’s seventh and last volume. Since the distinguished Chilean-born director, Raúl Ruiz, has a reputation for surrealism, “Time Regained” is a must-see for the smart crowd. I failed the sophistication test by frequently getting bored. Part of the problem is that I don’t want to go to aristocratic parties in the Faubourg St. Germain every night.

By starting with an asthmatic, dying Proust (Marcello Mazzarello), the movie gives no sense of narrative development and barely hints at the most captivating memories of childhood. Although Proust picks up some photographs and identifies a few faces, those unfamiliar with early volumes of the novel will have no sense of the complex experiences associated with these people. However, young Marcel’s first sight of Gilberte (Emmanuelle Béart) clipping roses in a garden is genuinely memorable, and a scene that shows him as a child playing with his magic lantern is enchanting.

Even mystified non-Proustians should enjoy kaleidoscopic glimpses of the beau monde, especially since Ruiz humorously underlines its superficiality and hypocrisy. At a high-class funeral Madame Verdurin (Marie-France Pisier) loses an earring, and mourning gives way to a confused poking at the ground. Proust’s friend Robert de Saint-Loup (Pascal Greggory), back from the front during World War I, chews his steak viciously as Marcel sits opposite him fasting. There are frequent examples of snobbery by rich and titled people who are revealed as vulgar.

The only thing to do is to accept the movie’s invitation to wander around at elegant parties as Proust does, picking up odd snatches of gossip and guessing at developing assignations. Unfortunately, champagne will not be served in the theater.

One would need to see “Time Regained” more than once to appreciate Ruiz’s shimmering images of simultaneous time, or how he makes his characters seem to take flight or turn to stone. Moments of poetry appear without warning: a burst of childish laughter, the notes of a sonata, a window opening on the sea. More surprising is the way Ruiz forces us to recognize that the largely frivolous life depicted in this film is taking place not far from the obscene slaughter of battle.

But all this doesn’t help us appreciate the illusion -- and ultimately disillusion -- with which Proust regarded his life, nor the suffering (to say nothing of the genius) that enabled him to create the work that justified his existence. “The true paradises,” he says in the film, “are those we have lost.” In “Time Regained,” unfortunately, his discovery of the importance of his book seems merely part of the endless fragmentation of refined nihilism.

Small Time Crooks is minor Woody Allen, but that’s better than Woody as Ingmar Bergman, or telling us why the artist should not be judged by the same standards as you and I. He can deliver a good script with lots of laugh lines, and today’s best comic performers want to be in his movies, so unless you won’t settle for anything less than “Annie Hall” or “Broadway Danny Rose,” this is one of the few movies so far this summer worth catching.

Woody is Ray Winkler, an inept thief who has done time, where he’s met three prisoners dumb enough to join him in an absurd scheme. They rent a store in order to use its cellar to blast a tunnel into a nearby bank. Their failure is good low comedy, but Allen’s loyal wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), a former topless dancer, meets with such wild success selling cookies in the store they had only thought of as a cover that they have to hire her dim-witted cousin (Elaine May) to handle the crowd.

Cookie wealth encourages Frenchy’s ambitions, and she is soon being tutored by David (Hugh Grant), a smarmy art dealer who believes she will be a major donor once he introduces her to “culture.” Frenchy is a delightfully naive social climber, but Ray doesn’t get much pleasure out of his Louis XIV or XV “or whatever he is” furniture; he wants to retire to Miami and eat pizza. Of course, what the movie is really satirizing is the pretentiousness of snobs.

What makes “Small Time Crooks” work are lots of fast one-liners, well-executed running gags and assured comic performances from all the main characters.

The relaxed charm of “Small Time Crooks” may represent a calculated decision to appeal to a broader audience, and even includes an ending that celebrates the permanent values of marriage. But not to worry: Woody isn’t ready yet to join the Moral Majority. Just relax and observe the zany clothes Frenchy and Ray try on during the course of the film, or the wide-eyed intensity with which Elaine May gives a full account of the day’s weather at the fanciest Manhattan cocktail parties. The latter’s performance alone is worth the price of admission.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer.

National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2000