Mickey Blue Eyes
Directed by Kelly Makin
The Sixth Sense
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Buena Vista Pictures
Twin Falls Idaho
Directed by Michael Polish
Sony Pictures Classics
Directed by Frank Oz
After his notorious arrest by the Hollywood vice squad in 1995, Hugh Grant showed up on talk shows to promote a new film and--it couldn't be avoided--offer an explanation for his "crime." Well, not an explanation precisely. Asked about the incident, he'd wince, bite his lip, bat his eyelashes, shrug sheepishly, and look adorably abashed. His contrition was so winning that one cartoonist suggested he could make big money as a spokesman for governments accused of human rights abuses. (On Saddam Hussein's gassing of the Kurds: "Rather a bad move ... terribly sorry." On the Serb-led slaughter in Sarajevo: "Most embarrassing ... frightful lapse in judgment.")
In the gangster farce Mickey Blue Eyes, Grant takes adorable abashment to delirious new heights. He plays Michael Felgate, an English executive for a Sotheby's-like New York auction house, who proposes to his girlfriend, a teacher named Gina Vitale (Jeanne Tripplehorn), and then discovers she's the daughter and niece of powerful crime bosses. Suddenly forced to keep company with men named Vito and Vinnie, to bury a corpse beside the East River, and to make like a gangster with a voice that's a cross between John Wayne and Tweety Bird, the squeamish Englishman winces, bites his lip, bats his eyelashes, shrugs sheepishly, and looks--yes--adorably abashed. The shtick would be irritating as hell if it weren't so ... adorable. Grant does abashed the way Bogie smoked, the way Marilyn flared her lips. He's not an actor of range (to say the least), but his charismatic discomfort--his breezy uneasiness--makes him a marvelous romantic-comedy star.
And the first two-thirds of Mickey Blue Eyes give him an excellent pedestal. It's the stuff of classic farce, which puts the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time and then fiendishly ups the ante. Pressured by Gina's spooky uncle (a superbly restrained turn by Burt Young) into auctioning off a paranoid son's painting--a resurrected Jesus putting holes in disloyal disciples with a submachine gun--Michael must simultaneously keep the gangsters happy, his fiancee (who'll pull the plug on the engagement if she finds out he's enmeshed in the family business) in the dark, the FBI from discovering the collusion, and--most important in farce--a semblance of dignity. His upper-crust boss is forever escorting a potential investor around the company, so that the two can walk in on him in poses that the Hollywood vice squad would find suspect. The director, Kelly Makin, hits the gags hard--he turns punch lines into slug lines--but his timing is crackerjack. The trick in pulling off this kind of comedy is to wind a lot of jack-in-the-boxes in full view of the audience yet still make it a surprise when they start--at moments of peak pandemonium--springing up. The screenwriters, Adam Scheinman and Robert Kuhn, have boned up on their Feydeau and Fawlty Towers--not to mention the slew of mobster movies to which they cheerfully make reference (and from which the filmmakers have hired most of the supporting cast).
What goes wrong? In the last half-hour, the farcical pulse gets lost amid the crosses and double-crosses and triple-crosses and erupting blood squibs and dud psychology. James Caan begins hilariously as Gina's hearty, lunkish father, but then has to get all noble under the weight of the picture's dumb, melodramatic contrivances. Worse, Grant's linguistically hapless gangster--Mickey Blue Eyes--never makes a climactic reappearance, so the filmmakers waste their best invention. As long as I'm carping, even the movie's first third has problems. I found the basic setup--that Michael has no inkling of Gina's family ties--implausible, since where I come from you don't ask a woman to marry you (you don't even get past the first date) until you've explained to her the ways in which your family screwed you up and have expressed tender sympathy for the ways in which her family did likewise. Am I the only one who thinks Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child is the dating manual of the '90s?
W hile I was on vacation, several readers wrote to say that The Blair Witch Project hadn't scared them but, oh boy, did they freak out at The Sixth Sense. Here, they said, was one skeeery movie! Backlash, shmacklash; The Blair Witch Project messed up my head more than anything since Night of the Living Dead (1968), so The Sixth Sense had me shivering in anticipation from its opening credits. Two hours later, I emerged with tear-stained cheeks and a lot of admiration for the "gotcha!" ending (the clues are there, but one shakes them off as arty mannerisms) but not especially frightened. The ghosts were seen too clearly--I could practically smell their greasepaint and mascara. The larger point is that the movie, directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan, belongs to a different genre than Blair Witch, which traffics in the irrational, the unseen, the terror of malevolent nothingness. The Sixth Sense uses the supernatural for reassurance. For all its bogey-man shenanigans, it wants to leave you with faith in a higher order--in the possibility that even after death wrongs may be avenged, innocents protected, and the loose ends of one's life tied up. Ultimately, it has less in common with Blair Witch than with such quivering lumps of sentiment as Ghost (1990) and Field of Dreams (1989). The film could be subtitled Field of Nightmares.
It's often wrenching anyway. Bruce Willis' damaged child psychologist wanders through an autumnal universe from which the warmth has been bleached (the pale yet deep-toned cinematography is by Tak Fujimoto), social intercourse is vaporous, and sounds seem piped in from another dimension. (A bus accelerating and decelerating is like a lonely groan.) As the haunted boy in his charge, Haley Joel Osment regards the therapist sadly, as if seeing into his (lost) soul. Osment's pinched, old-young face suggests an ancient's insight without an ancient's defenses--a sensitivity so exquisitely morbid that you worry more for his emotional than physical well-being. You worry, too, for his mom, played with tremulous fierceness by the wonderful Toni Collette. "Look at my face," she says, when her child ventures the idea that she must think he's crazy. "I would never think that." Maybe I've spent too much time with The Drama of The GiftedChild, but that part reduced me to a puddle of mush.
More post-vacation catching up: The rave reviews for Twin Falls Idaho and Bowfinger made me eager to see them, but neither really floated my boat. The first is an absorbing, low-budget art movie about conjoined twins, the weaker of whom is dying and mordant, the other torn (so to speak) between loyalty to his brother and a tenuous connection to the external world--embodied in part by a prostitute (Michele Hicks) who looks like Bridget Fonda as Vampira and acts like a slightly less wooden porn star. You can't exactly say, "Ho-hum, another sentimental Siamese-twin flick," but somehow I felt as if I'd been here before. It isn't just the willful echoes of Basket Case (1982) and Dead Ringers (1988). It's the way the twins (played by co-writers Mark Polish and Michael Polish, who also directed the film) are photographed to look so wanly beautiful and dear, like the hero of the play (not the David Lynch movie) The Elephant Man. They seem enigmatic when whispering in each other's ears, but when you actually hear what they're saying it's so humdrum that you wonder why they even bother to talk. There are brilliant moments--a flickering, black-and-white dream, in which they're separate and riding bicycles, is like a gorgeous home movie from the '20s unearthed from someone's basement--but the mixture of Diane Arbus freakiness and heart-tugging bathos finally feels a little cheap.
Cheaper still is most of Bowfinger, a one-joke movie that's like Ed Wood (1994) without the poetry or emotion that Tim Burton managed to coax out of re-creations of Grade Z genre flicks. The one joke--a bunch of untalented, impoverished filmmakers devise a movie around a paranoid action star (Eddie Murphy) who has no idea that he's even in it--is occasionally a hoot, but it also requires Murphy to act like a scaredy-cat Negro out of a '30s ghost movie. I laughed, but I came out depressed. On the basis of his script and performance, Steve Martin's vision of moviemaking is of a scam perpetrated by hustling morons. Has he been spending too much time with David Mamet?