Miracles Are Cheap

Reviews of the latest films.
May 19 2001 12:00 AM

Miracles Are Cheap

Moulin Rouge is all empty excess; Startup.com documents the Internet bust; A Knight's Tale kicks mummy butt. 

Moulin Rouge
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
20th Century Fox

Startup.com
Directed by Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim
Artisan Entertainment

A Knight's Tale
Directed by Brian Helgeland
Columbia Pictures

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Along with the news of mammoth grosses for the excruciatingly witless The Mummy Returns, last week's e-mail brought an onslaught of expletive-laced responses to my last column, the pithiest of which reads: "Movies are about having FUN! Why don't you critics understand that we go to movies to FORGET! about the real world and enjoy a FANTASY! you F---ING IDIOT!" How lucky that A Knight's Tale offers ready proof that it's possible to see a mega-budget escapist adventure and have both FUN! and TASTE! Written and directed by Brian Helgeland, the movie is a cheekily anachronistic medieval jousting melodrama starring golden-haired heartthrob Heath Ledger and a troupe of rowdy young Brits. It's not a work of soaring imagination: At times, it seems as casual as an Elvis Presley flick like Clambake (1967) or Speedway (1968)—the ones in which the unaffected hero competes against some sneering rich boy for both a trophy and a trophy babe. But you might find yourself smiling and laughing all the way through it, relieved to be enjoying an old-style saga that doesn't just barrel from climax to climax or get righteous by killing off kids. A Knight's Tale is simply a jolly good (k)night out. 

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Ledger plays William Thatcher, a servant to a nobleman who wanders Europe competing in successive jousts, much like someone on today's pro wrestling circuit. That's not an idle comparison since Helgeland baldly jettisons period ambience in the credit sequence by having his 14th-century crowd beating in time to the stadium anthem, "We Will Rock You." By then, William's master has suddenly expired; and rather than forfeit the match, the young man has convinced his fellow squires, the plump Roland (Mark Addy) and red-haired Wat (Alan Tudyk), to let him stand in for the dead knight. It's a scam with potential consequences since a) only noblemen are permitted to joust, and b) William has never actually done so.

What follows has one foot in the "Go for It" genre and one in the world of impersonation farce, and it's a clever, larky combination. Despite his lack of technique, William begins to win matches on guts alone, and before long he has added to his entourage a bonny female blacksmith, Kate (Laura Fraser), and the budding author Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany)—first encountered trudging naked through the forest, stripped of his clothes by creditors about to return for his birthday suit. Eager to pay off his gambling debts, young Chaucer concocts the fake "patents" that allow William to compete as "Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein" and the actor Bettany to stop the show with a series of hilariously hyperbolic orations in which he extols the deeds of the bogus knight to increasingly star-struck audiences. The most adoring fan of all is soon the beauteous Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon), whom William spies in a crowd and pursues on horseback into a cathedral, where she later mock-complains to the Rouen bishop entrusted with her purity: "Why, God, did you curse me with this face?" William's rival for both Jocelyn and the title of world's greatest jouster is the chiseled and chiseling Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell), whose eyes blaze green through his knightly visor—he's palpably lusting to prove himself the better man.

There's a nudge-nudge-wink-wink tone to some of the merry band's antics, and the rock songs under the action call too much attention to themselves. (The resourceful composer, Carter Burwell, could probably have incorporated an electric guitar into his medieval airs without shattering the mood so violently.) But Helgeland, who co-wrote L.A. Confidential (1997) and wrote the underrated ConspiracyTheory (1997), manages to parody chivalric conventions without fatally undermining them. (Perhaps he took his cue from the actual Chaucer.) The bouts themselves, though largely bloodless, feel real enough (the explosion of splinters and Dolbyized whacks make you jump); and the director squeezes genuine anguish from William's flashback to the day when his wearily impoverished father entrusted his upbringing to a nobleman in hopes the boy could "change his stars" (although bringing Dad back as a tremulous blind man is maybe pushing it). I loved the farcical energy of the all-Brit supporting cast; the nod to Cyrano de Bergerac when our artless hero attempts to contrive a love letter; the occasional Monty Pythonesque aside ("I am a summoner," explains one man. "I am called 'Simon the Summoner' "); and the over-the-top "Sir Ulrich" intros by Chaucer, especially the one that climaxes, "We walk in the garden of his turpulence!!!"—a claim met with firm silence and then Roland's tentative "Yeah!" (I had to check the dictionary to make sure "turpulence" wasn't a real word—it sounds terrific.)

It's hard to say if Heath Ledger will be the next dreamboat superstar, but he makes a fine straight man for all these boisterous clowns, and you never catch him preening unless he's preening in character. Less happy is the casting of Shannyn Sossamon, who's dead-voiced and coiffed like an anorexic model, with plumes that would make Cecil Beaton blush. It's possible that Helgeland goofed by making the Scottish blacksmith so madly attractive; I kept waiting for William to realize that his destiny lay instead with the saucy, dark-eyed Laura Fraser. Then again, we Mary Ann guys never do get the fuss about the Gingers.

A Knight's Tale made me feel in touch with mainstream entertainment again, but I still can't shake the tone of those e-mails for my Mummy Returns review. I'd need a degree in both sociology and psychology to make sense of the one that concludes, "I only wish harm to you and your family," followed by the postscript, "GET A LIFE!" It seems to me that wishing someone's loved ones harm on the basis of a movie review (of The Mummy Returns!) is the most vivid proof of an absent life imaginable. Why do people who've "escaped" into certain kinds of fantasies return with the urge to hurt the ones who didn't share their fun?

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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