Crash of the Titans

Reviews of the latest films.
July 13 2001 8:30 PM

Crash of the Titans

Brando and De Niro stumble through The Score; Bully is boorishly clumsy; Legally Blonde doesn't meet the bar.

The Score
Directed by Frank Oz
Paramount Pictures

Bully
Directed by Larry Clark
Lions Gate Films

Legally Blonde
Directed by Robert Luketic
MGM

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Twenty-five years ago, the prospect of Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro teaming up in a movie would have been unimaginably thrilling: two Vito Corleones, the former the greatest American film actor of all time, the latter (it seemed likely) the greatest of his generation. The always-flaky Brando was by then flaking off into the ether, finding diversion only in one-upping his co-stars; but his perversity at least kept him right there in the moment, toying with the bizarre possibilities of his lines even as he threw them away. The young De Niro, meanwhile, was incapable of artifice: Every impulse seemed to travel through a mile-long cerebral loop before it finally expressed itself in word or gesture. Think of what—with the right direction—these two weirdo geniuses might have triggered in each other. Why, De Niro might have … Brando might have …

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Forgive my lapse into fantasy. I'm doing anything to keep from confronting the actors today, the movie at hand.

It's called The Score, an appropriately generic title for a droning, high-toned little heist picture with no dash and no raison d'être. No raison, that is, apart from its actors' payday—which, in light of their Method training, should have given more urgency to the characters' pursuit of the mother lode. No, that's not quite true: De Niro and Brando can collect just by showing up, whereas their characters have to perform.

The opening sets the perfect mood. While cracking a safe in a mansion, master-thief Nick (De Niro) is forced to hide by the arrival of a pair of would-be lovers. The two have a spat, the male stomps off, the female discovers Nick's tools; and the thief quickly shoves her against the wall, orders her not to turn around, swipes the contents of the safe, drives away in a van, swaps the van for a car, swaps the car for a boat, drives off in yet another car, returns to his Montreal apartment, and wearily closes his eyes. What have we learned? That the script, by Kario Salem, Lem Dobbs, and Scott Marshall Smith, consists of tight scenes that build to punch lines that never come. That the movie's hero is a) obsessively careful; b) nonviolent; c) a resident of Canada; and d) drop-dead boring.

If you like scenes of people poring over blueprints or of sundry mechanical contraptions snapping open and shut, you'll love The Score. Video monitors go snowy and security guards say, "Hmm … must be a loose wire," while cool thieves look at their watches and whisper things like, "On my mark, you have 30 seconds to drill through the bars, straddle the lasers, and plant the explosive." The plodding attention to process recalls Mission:Impossible (the TV series, not the hot-dog-Tom-Cruise-oriented films), and I suppose there's something soothingly narcotic about it—or would be, if you managed to forget about the days when De Niro and Brando kept your eyes shocked open with their unpredictability.

The Score does have a spark plug in Edward Norton, who plays Jackie, a gung-ho kid who works on Nick to rob Montreal's customs house—a riskier target than usual and closer to home. It must have been strange for Norton to show up for work with idols Brando and De Niro and discover it was his job to carry their scenes. (You can imagine them saying, "You act, youngster. We'll react.") Norton is smart and skillful, but a part this synthetic makes him seem more callowly actorish than usual: a drama school showoff instead of a filled-in human being.

And the meeting of the Titans? A nonevent, a veritable competition to see which of them can put out less. De Niro stays inside himself—which might be true to the character but makes you long for the relative flamboyance of, say, Peter Graves' Mr. Phelps. As Max, Nick's employer in crime, Brando trundles into the nightclub Nick owns (legitimately, on the up-and-up) wearing a sport coat the size of a circus tent and seems poised to do some seriously fruity capering. Reportedly, the actor wanted to play Max as a screaming queen (perhaps in the mode of his old nemesis, Truman Capote) but was dissuaded by director Frank Oz, whom he reportedly told, "I bet you wish I was a puppet so you could stick your hand up my ass and make me do what you want."  

Brando's way might have been offensive, but it would have been more fun to watch than this spent old homosexual whose only narrative function is delivering exposition. (Once regarded as the most masculine of actors, Brando is now in his element at his most epicene.) Even muzzled, Brando is still Brando: He manages a ga-ga fillip here and there ("I'll believe that when the pigs eat my brother"—who's his brother, Hannibal Lecter?), and he doesn't hit a false note. But it's sad to hear him running short of breath and even sadder to see him exploiting his own torpor for pathos. This is the first time he has made a show of going out with a whimper.

If it didn't slow to a crawl in the last half-hour, Larry Clark's Bully would make a killer party movie for aging potheads, a Plan Nine From Outer Space (1958) with nudity and splatter. The film, which aims for the flat, quasi-improvisational tone of Clark's Kids (1995), is a riot of sleazy camera moves, bad acting, and maladroit profane dialogue. It's based on the true story of a murder committed by a group of fairly well-to-do teen stoners around Hollywood, Florida, as chronicled in Jim Schutze's 1997 Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge; and all the incidents and many of the lines come straight from the book. But with Clark at the helm, gritty realism has a way of becoming grisly venerealism. The film is a procession of lurid howlers—an unwitting burlesque of "sociological" teenpics. It makes Kids look like a masterpiece of humanism.

The story's hook is that the victim, Bobby Kent (played in the movie by Nick Stahl), is a bad guy—a sadist, rapist, and druggie thug with a bullyingly homoerotic fixation on the dim but essentially decent Marty (Brad Renfro). It's Marty's new girlfriend, the slightly pudgy Lisa (Rachel Miner), who decides that she and the hunk-of-her-life can never be free as long as Bobby—who knocks Marty around and has even roughly mounted her—hovers over their lives. The second part of Bully, in which Lisa enlists the aid of addled peers (among them a supposed teen-age "hit man") in planning the murder, is like River's Edge (1986) re-enacted by a convention of retards. (See this article in Slate for a discussion of "correct" terms for the mentally disabled—there's just no better word for the characters here.)

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