e-mail us

At the Movies:

Corrupt, absent or drugged -- Films’s Society


Terence Davies’ adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth takes to heart the warning of Ecclesiastes: “The heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” The movie, which opened along with a cornucopia of end-of-the-year offerings hoping to catch holiday customers and Oscar nominations, is a richly embroidered and highly satiric look at New York high society a century ago.

The advertising features Gillian Anderson, known to millions of TV fans as Agent Scully in “The X-Files.” Apparently her photograph made director Davies think of women in John Singer Sargent portraits. He took a risk in casting her in the central role of Lily Bart, a risk that proved largely successful.

Lily states her problem clearly: “A girl must get married; a man if he chooses.” She also recognizes that “life is expensive”: She must marry a rich man and escape the relative penury of living with a wealthy aunt who pays her dressmaker and gives her an allowance. The movie deliberately makes Lily more sympathetic by omitting several strong statements in the novel that show she has accepted the values of luxury and extreme privilege. At the same time she shows a suppressed desire to be independent of the emptiness of high society, which leads her to appreciate the attentions of Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), a young lawyer who is only moderately well off but seems to offer a less hypocritical life. The scenes between Anderson and Stoltz, in which we recognize the strong attraction between them as well as the hesitation on both sides, are the best in the movie.

Most of the time Stoltz observes Lily ironically as she plays the coquette. Visiting her socialite friend Judy Trenor in the country, Lily agrees to go to church with Percy Gryce (Pearce Quigley), an eligible bore, but instinctively ruins her chances by missing her appointment and taking a walk with Selden. Facing immediate money problems after heavy losses in card games with her rich friends, Lily thoughtlessly compromises herself by accepting a loan and investment advice from Judy’s husband Gus (Dan Aykroyd).

There are predictable complications later: “I just want to be thanked a little,” Gus pleads. Mr. Rosedale (Anthony Paglia), the rising financier who craves social acceptance, makes her a more honest offer, but she finds herself unable to accept a marriage based on a purely financial relationship. “The House of Mirth” omits the anti-Semitism of the times and the fact that Rosedale is a Jew, but makes him the most likeable man in the movie.

The image of a corrupt society seems surprisingly contemporary. “Why is it when we meet,” the weary Lily says to Selden, “we always play this elaborate game?” Rooting for a happy ending, I want to accuse Selden of cowardly inaction, but the movie remains true to its source in following Lily’s downfall. Although Selden sees correctly that there is a core of integrity in this beautiful, deluded woman, he is unequal to her challenge.

How much you like Cast Away probably will depend on how excited you are by the Robinson Crusoe story. The heart of Robert Zemeckis’ new film shows Tom Hanks all alone on an island where just to survive he has to reinvent civilization -- like starting a fire, a memorable image you will take away from this film.

“Cast Away” should make audiences appreciate long stretches of silence and might even teach them that a string of shootings and automobile accidents is hard on eyes and ears as well as boring. Hanks, who worked with Zemeckis before in the gimmicky “Forrest Gump,” is Chuck Noland, a time-obsessed engineer with FedEx who is always in control. He wants to speed up the company’s delivery system, and when we see him in Moscow demanding faster performances from its Russian workers, it is clear he’s a can-do guy.

After he gets back home, he relaxes a little with his fiancée Kelly (Helen Hunt), who gives him a handsome, old-fashioned pocket watch with her picture inside, an heirloom in her family. Then he’s suddenly called away on some distant FedEx troubleshooting problem, and the next thing we know he’s on a plane over the Pacific in a heavy storm.

The airplane crash scene is extra-long, a carefully detailed presentation of chaos. The fact that Chuck instinctively knows how to protect himself and manages to get his life raft inflated shows that he is an inspired survivor.

After washing ashore on a barren, rocky island, however, he finds nothing to sustain him except a lot of coconuts. Desperately attacking one with a rock, he cuts his hands and discovers that the rock can be a tool. Chuck gathers FedEx boxes that float up to shore. He opens them to discover some videotapes, a pair of girls’ ice skates, and a white volleyball that he names Wilson (after the manufacturer). He has to learn everything from scratch, makes mistakes -- some comic, some life threatening -- cries out in his loneliness, and rediscovers the beauty of nature. Formerly the master of time, now he has all the time in the world. He regularly consults the watch Kelly gave him, even though it no longer runs.

Just when Chuck seems to have mastered the basic needs of his island existence, there is a sudden fadeout, and a disconcerting title: “Four Years Later.” In the movie’s actual production, there was a year of waiting while Hanks trimmed down and grew an impressively patriarchal beard. Chuck continues to battle the wind, the surf, and the limitations of island existence, talking frequently to his only friend, Wilson.

By avoiding special effects gimmicks, Zemeckis allows Hanks to impress us with the full range of human responses, from revolt to despair to humility. Though Chuck is clearly an intelligent man, his interior reflections lack real depth. It’s unclear whether Chuck has emerged from his experience with any lesson other than “stay alive”: Keep breathing, he says, there’s always hope of some new possibility coming along.

Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, which draws on a British TV mini-series on drugs, is the most exciting movie in quite a while, and also, not unrelatedly, the hardest to follow. Soderbergh jump-cuts across the three stories of Stephen Gagham’s complex screenplay: the shadowy efforts to eliminate the drug cartel in Tijuana; the education of Ohio judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), the new head of the national war on drugs, who discovers that his 16-year-old daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) has become addicted to cocaine; and a flashy drug operation in San Diego, in which the wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) keeps the operation going while her dealer-husband is facing trial.

What’s going on, you ask yourself; who’s on whose side? Are Mexican state policemen Javier (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo (Jacob Vargas) honest? Is General Salazar (Tomas Milian), who later employs Javier and Monolo on his team, really working to eliminate the drug cartel in Tijuana? One even begins to suspect the motives of the likable and humorous policemen (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzmán) who are trying to collect evidence on the San Diego drug operation.

“Traffic” has a terrific cast, and Soderbergh brings us closer to the action than is comfortable. He nevertheless succeeds in making compelling entertainment out of his depressing subject and wisely doesn’t pretend to offer answers. The demand for drugs has become deeply ingrained in our culture, and all the movie can do is to show its respect for the few resourceful policemen on both sides of the Mexican-American border who pursue their repetitious efforts with bravery and dignity.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is SCunn24219@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 2001