e-mail us

At the Movies

Love and Dreams


Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie was a tremendous hit in France and should do well here, but super sophisticates will hate it. Perhaps its original title, “Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain,” gives a better sense of the movie’s good-natured self-mockery. Both a fairy tale and a shaggy-dog story, it’s a series of picture postcards of an essentially pre-WWII (and all-white) Paris that pass by at breakneck speed, to the accompaniment of a wisecracking commentator, André Dussolier.

The movie’s burlesque opening recounts, in the old-fashioned tone of long-ago newsreels, the tale of Amélie’s sad childhood. She was forbidden formal schooling and the company of children her own age because her doctor father decided she had a heart murmur -- it beat faster whenever he came near her. Instructed at home, she lost her mother teacher when the poor woman was crushed on the porch of Notre Dame by a tourist from Quebec who had jumped from one of the towers.

Audrey Tautou, an enchanting brunette with large dark eyes, is shy and mischievous as the grown-up Amélie. After leaving her father alone in the suburbs with his memorial to his wife topped by a large gnome, she goes to work as a waitress in a Montmartre café, plays elaborate tricks on a grocer who is unjust to his one-armed assistant, and in general tries to make the world better. The narration wanders, pursuing jokes more than plot. Amélie watches a TV program on the good works of her life; premier François Mitterand is the commentator, and there is a shot of her in the garb of Mother Teresa’s order. She even takes the neighborhood blind man by the arm and walks him across the street, while providing a rapid-fire account of everything she sees going on in front of the stores. The atmosphere is further enhanced by Amélie’s old neighbor, the painter Dufayel (Serge Merlin), who works tirelessly to recreate Renoir paintings and eventually teaches her -- via videotape -- to embrace life more directly.

Some of the gags are stale, and the movie takes too long with its love story because of the heroine’s extreme shyness. She is drawn to Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz), a confused young man who spends a lot of time lying on his stomach, looking under photo machines for spoiled identity photographs and pasting them together in a scrapbook. Amélie leaves surprising clues to her identity and sets up mysterious meetings but keeps postponing the inevitable.

The movie’s sunny disposition will seem excessive to some. Amélie arranges to have postcards of her father’s garden gnome posed against famous landmarks sent to him mysteriously from various cities, and the grocer’s assistant finally becomes the artist’s devoted new pupil. On the whole, however, “Amélie” dodges the very naiveté it draws on; when it makes use of special effects, it doesn’t ask us to take them too seriously. And the movie speeds up again at the end as Nino and Amélie ride off on his motorcycle, the “lived happily ever after” conclusion deliciously qualified by the radiant heroine’s direct wink at the audience.

If you’re looking for something more experimental, perhaps more demanding, you might try Rich Linklater’s Waking Life. Shot in video as an ordinary movie and then transformed into computer graphics by animation artists directed by Bob Sabiston, it doesn’t try to satisfy those who insist on narrative. Though it returns to its opening at the end, nothing much happens. An unidentified protagonist (Wiley Wiggins) awakens in a dream and walks around Austin, Texas, and other locales, mostly listening passively as a series of speakers make quick philosophical pitches, sometimes nutty, sometimes erudite, for their varied points of view. Sartre’s existentialism is presented in hopeful terms, one speaker argues passionately that a brief period of consciousness continues after death, André Bazin is quoted on how film captures the reality of the moment, and a wide range of perspectives is offered on the meaning of dreams. Wiggins seems to have no particular goal; he levitates, wonders whether or not he is awake, and comes to believe that even waking up is part of his dream.

Faces and images change color, and extensions of people’s thoughts emerge in side panels, suggesting an unfinished universe compatible with the way a scientist describes the action of molecules. Except for Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, most of the speakers are not actors, and the overall atmosphere is that of an undisciplined graduate seminar -- only faster and funnier. Less successful is a sequence in which a prisoner behind bars rants about torturing his enemies to death. Linklater mostly leaves the question open as to whether we’re listening to jokes or serious contributions to Wiggins’s overall education. The audience I saw the movie with was confident about laughing at the end of one sequence in which two gun enthusiasts end up shooting each other, but were less certain about how to respond to “I’d rather be a gear in a big deterministic physical machine than just some random swerving,” at which the speaker’s face turns into a large gear. There’s probably extra significance in the statement of the pinball player (played by Linklater) near the end of the film: “There’s only one instant, and it’s right now, and it’s eternity.”

“Waking Life” includes too much New Age talk, and the last third of it seems to drag, but the animation is more than just a technological achievement; it’s genuinely imaginative. When Wiggins is told (by Linklater, in character) to wake up, we see him float up into the sky without knowing what it means, but it’s strangely moving and even hopeful.

Shallow Hal is a radical shift to vulgarity that manages to be mostly likeable and sometimes very funny. It’s the new Farrelly brother’s film, as good-natured as a puppy, with its tastelessness (relatively) under restraint. Although aimed primarily at a young audience, it deliberately makes fun of its sex-obsessed characters, perhaps a more useful contribution than most sermons on the subject.

Hal (Jack Black) and best-pal Mauricio (Jason Alexander, well known to “Seinfeld” fans) are would-be womanizers who gyrate energetically at their local dance clubs, hoping to attract females with perfect bodies, but are complete failures. Hal’s fixation is presented as due to the advice of his dying father, a minister; the latter insists that according to the Bible one should have sex only with perfectly proportioned young women.

Hal’s loud, unsubtle approach only drives women away, but things change when he’s stuck in an elevator with TV-guru Tony Robbins, whose instant therapy changes him so radically that he sees only inner instead of outer beauty. A drastically overweight Peace Corps volunteer named Rosemary looks to him like an insecure but humorous Gwyneth Paltrow. The premise is hardly subtle but it plays out with surprising success as the actress shows a gift for comedy, convincing us that she doesn’t know she’s a knockout and thinks Hal’s compliments are a form of sarcasm. When Rosemary overeats drastically, Hal merely says what a pleasure it is to go out with a woman who wants a full meal; when her chair breaks under her bulk, he’s confused, but simply asks management to get a replacement.

The developing romance is both goofy and charming: Rosemary begins to relax, though her appetite never diminishes, and Hal’s long-suppressed decency begins to seem natural. It even turns out that Rosemary’s father is Hal’s boss, Steve Shanahan (Joe Viterelli), who is delighted that his daughter finally has a beau and gives Hal a chance to present his marketing ideas to the board members of the company. Meanwhile, Mauricio thinks Hal has gone crazy, but finally confesses that his own problem with women is due to extreme shyness, which has an especially zany cause. The path of true love hits further roadblocks, and the conclusion is a pleasant surprise.

The material may be rowdy and obvious, but Hal, Rosemary and Mauricio make the most of it. “Shallow Hal” is never subtle, but it’s on the side of the angels; there’s even a minor character named Walt (Rene Kirby, who is afflicted with spina bifida) who walks around on all fours and displays a good sense of humor and superior social grace. The way the movie simply makes Walt part of its company makes it clear that the Farrellys have more on their minds than their old jokes about body effluvia.

Joseph Cunneen, NCR’s regular movie critic, can be contacted at scunn24219@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, November 23, 2001