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Reviews of the latest films.
Aug. 10 1999 3:30 AM

CREEP Show

Dicking around with Watergate; Mystery Men's hilariously mundane superheroes.

Dick

Directed by Andrew Fleming
Sony Pictures Entertainment

Mystery Men

Directed by Kinka Usher
Universal Pictures

The Thomas Crown Affair

Directed by John McTiernan
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

32000_32946_1dick

The delightful comedy Dick defaces the memory of America's most cherished political scandal. It's a mustache on the Mona Lisa--or maybe a big, crooked dick on the cover of All the President's Men. Simply put, the movie makes the charming case that Deep Throat, Bob Woodward's pseudonymous high-level source, was not (as recent "Chatterbox" columns have speculated) an FBI honcho such as W. Mark Felt, but two bubble-headed 15-year-old blondes.

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According to the film, Arlene (Michelle Williams) lived at the Watergate Hotel, and she and Betsy (Kirsten Dunst) were the ones who put the duct tape on the stairway lock that led security guards to the burglars. (The girls were slipping out to mail their entry to a "Win a Date With Bobby Sherman" contest.) To keep Betsy and Arlene quiet about having seen G. Gordon Liddy (Harry Shearer) at both the Watergate and the White House, Nixon (Dan Hedaya) made them "Official White House Dog Walkers"--in which capacity they stumbled on a room full of people shredding documents and counting piles of payoff money. As Dick tells it, the story got even weirder: Here at last is the druggy truth behind détente! And you won't believe what was really on those 18½ minutes of erased Oval Office tape!

The amazing thing about Dick (directed by Andrew Fleming from a script he wrote with Sheryl Longin) is that it manages to burlesque the Watergate mythos without trivializing it. Under its slapstick shenanigans, this modest movie offers a convincing vision of Nixon White House operations as a sordid buffoon show undone by a couple of painfully earnest innocents: It's nature's revenge on the overweening. The larger truths are all there, and some of the smaller ones, too--like the idea that Nixon's paranoia would extend even to his dog (another Checkers), or that Woodward and Bernstein might seem as vain and as clumsily ambitious as the felons they're pursuing. Post-Monica Lewinsky, it isn't odd to think of wide-eyed airheads wandering the White House. (Post-Monica Crowley, it isn't even odd to think of wide-eyed airheads drinking in the wisdom of Richard Nixon.) It's blissfully satisfying to hear Arlene--who has replaced her Bobby Sherman posters with those of her Dick and who fantasizes about romping on a beach with him in slow motion--come to her senses and utter the immortal reproach, "You kicked Checkers and you're prejudiced and you have a potty mouth!"

Some critics have compared Dick to Alexander Payne's great Election (1999), to which it bears not the faintest resemblance. Payne employs multiple points of view, probes his characters' psyches, and edits with a snap. By contrast, Dick is rather limp. The pacing is purposefully slack--the gags just dribble out. Fleming's poker face is perfect for making you giggle at offhand insertions of Watergate minutiae or urban-paranoid compositions cribbed from Alan J. Pakula's film of All the President's Men (1976). The movie's sophistication hits you gradually. Maybe you have to be sophisticated to make a picture so effortlessly, cheerfully facile about a subject so dark and convoluted. Dunst and Williams make Betsy and Arlene simple in ways that go beyond dumb, so that their budding awareness of Dick's mendacity has an unexpected emotional kick. Like many Americans of that era they're crushed, they get their own back, and then they leap into the age of roller-disco. The Bogey Man goes down, and Dick sends you home boogeying.

32000_32947_2mystery_men

M ystery Men is one of those half-straight, half-spoof comic-book extravaganzas that don't ever work, and what's neat is that this one does--beautifully. The movie, based on the Flaming Carrot/Mysterymen comics, unfolds in a dirigible-filled urban metropolis in which superheroes routinely mix it up with supervillains, and in which there exists an entire class of nerdy superhero wannabes, each of whom struggles to concoct a persona that will fully embody what he or she does most ... superheroically. The protagonist, Roy (Ben Stiller), calls himself Mr. Furious because his anger supposedly gives him powers undreamt of by mere mortals. He glowers and snorts like the Incredible Hulk--"I am a ticking time bomb!"--except that he doesn't transform. He is joined in his crime-fighting efforts by The Shovel (William H. Macy), who wields the same, and the effete English Blue Raja (Hank Azaria), whose talent is for operatically flinging wide his cape and hurling forks, most of which end up sticking out of his companions instead of his foes.

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The first-time director, who goes by the (superhero?) name of Kinka Usher, overloads the movie with skewed angles and screwy lenses and grotesque special effects. What keeps his work from becoming campily oppressive (like the last, dreadful Batman picture) is his respect for the untranscendent flatness of ordinary life. These nerds just can't quite get off the ground. More than that, they're inherently suspicious of one another: They see through their buddys' superheroic poses--and their own. Stiller, who struggles to turn his self-hatred into other-hatred, makes a hilariously morose seether, and Azaria is poetically twitty--he recalls Marlon Brando's Fletcher Christian. The earnest Macy, the whitest man imaginable, has been given an African-American wife, to whom he must constantly defend his unrealized ambitions: "I shovel well. I shovel very well."

These idiots can never measure up to the city's most superheroic crime fighter, Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), a preening egotist who soars around on a jet pack trashing supervillains, his uniform emblazoned with product placements. When all the heavyweight bad guys are dead or in jail (and his celebrity endorsements dry up), he contrives to have one of his old nemeses, Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) released from the insane asylum--a bad move, as it turns out, since Amazing has got rusty and Frankenstein has had plenty of time to hatch a diabolical scheme. Among the misfits who join up with our three would-be superheroes to liberate Captain Amazing are Paul Reubens, who brings a glittery-eyed intensity to The Spleen, a pustuled lisper with toxic flatulence, and the wonderful Janeane Garofalo as The Bowler, who hurls a ball in which the skull of her murdered father is ghoulishly embedded.

The script, by Neil Cuthbert, deftly juggles the fantasy of what our heroes want to be and the reality of what they are. They don't show grace under pressure, but they somehow rise to the occasion, and Mystery Men becomes a triumphant celebration of nerdy aspiration. I might have complained that Stiller and Garofalo--who instantly rub each other the wrong way--don't end up falling in love, and that the film pairs Stiller instead with a conventional ingénue. But since that ingénue is the meltingly gorgeous Claire Forlani, it would take someone more superheroic than I to register a protest.

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T he world didn't need a remake of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), an enjoyable piece of romantic fluff in which worldly millionaire thief Steve McQueen matched wits with brittle insurance investigator Faye Dunaway. We didn't need it, but we got it anyway--and it's pretty terrific. The old script has been smartly overhauled, and the director, John McTiernan (Die Hard, 1988), works with a master-craftsman's elegance. The climax, in which an army of men in trench coats and bowler hats swap identical portfolios, is like a ballet designed by Magritte. (It's worthy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in which it takes place.) True, there's the hollow man, Pierce Brosnan, in the McQueen role, but he's not bad here: His passivity is archly amusing. And then there's Rene Russo. She makes her entrance in furs and a pair of sunglasses, with creamy lips and mussed red hair--both sleek and sexily bedraggled. When she cottons (almost instantly) to the fact that Brosnan is her art thief, she toys with him, happy with the chase and entertained by his effrontery. You can't spot the moment when she falls in love: It must be when it dawns on her that she's the mouse and not the cat. Before you know it, she's roiling with doubt and heartbreakingly vulnerable, and this slick thriller romance becomes more than an ultracivilized game. Russo has never been less than agreeable, but here's she's something else: a movie star.

David Edelstein is the chief film critic for New York magazine and a film critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.