Spider-Man swings along with brio

Reviews of the latest films.
May 3 2002 10:51 AM

Eight Legs To Hold You

Spider-Man swings along with brio; Hollywood Ending should send Woody Allen running back to drama.

Tobey Maguire catches Kirsten Dunst in his web
Tobey Maguire catches Kirsten Dunst in his web

When Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) calls, "Wait—who are you?" to the figure in the spider-suit who has carried her from a scene of carnage, you can almost see Tobey Maguire blush. You can't really, of course: His red, webbed, spider mask is opaque. But you know how smitten his Peter Parker is with Mary Jane, and how a look from Kirsten Dunst—with that wide-open face atop those long stems—would make anyone blush. And you know from the way he freezes and the angle of his head that he's tempted to turn and say, "It's me, Peter Parker, and I've loved you all my life"; and you can hear the goofy grin in his voice when he finally comes out with, "Just your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man." This archetypal superhero scene is acted and directed so simply and with such radiant sincerity that you might forget, for a moment, you're in the middle of a special-effects-engorged extravaganza—the first chapter of a new Hollywood "franchise." You might think you're watching a charming love story.

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At its best, Spider-Man (Sony Pictures) takes the adolescent yearning at the heart of most superhero sagas and gives it a lovely swing. The script, by David Koepp, isn't inspired, but it keeps the emotional beats clean, and director Sam Raimi treats his hero tenderly: He gives him space to watch and think as well as act. Raimi doesn't overcomplicate things. The Marvel Spider-Man comic was born at the beginning of the Pop Art era—its colors are primary. Unlike Bruce Wayne's Batman and Bruce Banner's Incredible Hulk, Peter Parker's Spider-Man has no metaphoric component. The spider persona doesn't emanate from any aspect of Parker's troubled psyche—it's just a cool conceit. And because Parker's powers are extrinsic, Tobey Maguire can be Spider-Man and stand outside Spider-Man, too. That soft face is not the face of a superhero—which is the whole hilarious point.

This is a star-making performance, as fresh and funny as Christopher Reeve's in Superman (1978). Maguire has a wary, uninsistent presence, with just a hint of yeasty morbidity to keep him from seeming beatific. He internalizes everything, which is perfect for a character who doesn't have any awareness of his body until a genetically altered spider sinks its fangs into him. Then, after a night of clammy sweats, Parker finds himself in a new frame, with muscles, 20/20 vision, and, oh yes, the ability to make webs jet out of his palm. The scenes in which Maguire contemplates his weird new excretions are like the Marvel Comics version of David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986)—there's no decay, only giddy enhancement.

Arachnid-Man
Arachnid-Man

The villain, the Green Goblin, is enhanced, too—but he's not giddy, he's a big drag. He's the result of a wayward experiment by millionaire military-industrial scientist Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), and he'd be a good warm-up superbaddy, an aperitif. Surfing around skyscrapers with his elongated reptilian helmet-head, he's like H.R. Giger's alien hanging ten, and Raimi delights in putting Goblin's and Spider-Man's heads together for protracted dialogues: Neither has a mouth that moves, so these are amusingly akin to comic-book frames. But the Goblin is a dull brute. Peculiarly fixated on winning Spider-Man over to his side, his attempted seductions are tiresome, and he's no more compelling when he confronts Osborn, his human alter ego, in the mirror, à la Hyde taunting Jekyll. Dafoe, whose face from the start is a cadaverous mask, has barely enough variety for one character, let alone two. It would be more fun to see Spider-Man battle J. Jonah Jameson, editor of the New York Post-like tabloid for which Parker takes photos (mostly of Spider-Man): As played by J.K. Simmons (Dr. Emil on Law and Order), he's a dazzling fount of bumptiousness. (Quick: Someone revive The Front Page! We have the greatest Walter Burns of our time!)

The action sequences may bother some people, who find it hard to get off, post-9/11, on seeing Manhattan office buildings crumble or trams full of kids dangling by a (spider) thread. But I'm not sure these scenes would have been the highlights of Spider-Man, anyway. The effects are impersonal. One of the highest compliments you can pay a studio-tooled blockbuster is to say that it would hold the screen without the computer-generated spectacle. Spider-Man would hold the screen even better, maybe, since there'd be more of Maguire and less of his virtual-reality action double, who swings from building to building with the inhuman ease and fluidity of a video-game protagonist. There's nothing magical about these sequences, because we know that artificial entities in computer universes can do whatever they want. We miss the thrill that comes from watching real acrobats, whether they're Jackie Chan, Gene Kelly, or trapeze artists at the circus; we miss their weight, their conquest of gravity, the element of danger in what they do.

We miss a certain kind of cinematic invention, too. The director Peter Sellars, after being fired from his first Broadway production, said he'd never done so little good work in his life because whenever a problem arose he could just throw money at it—whereas much creativity is a consequence of figuring out how to get from A to D without going through B and C. Consider The Evil Dead (1982). Unable to afford a Steadicam for shots meant to evoke a demon rushing toward a cabin, Raimi and his crew mounted a camera to a long board and let two guys run with it. They called it a "Shakicam," and the jiggly whoosh is much more thrilling than any big-bucks Steadicam. Raimi brought a touch of low-budget Shakicam funk to Darkman (1990), and Spider-Man could have used a little, too. Since abandoning grisly slapstick a decade ago, Raimi has quietly learned, in such films as A Simple Plan (1998) and The Gift (2000), to tell classical stories and bring out the soul in his actors. But I miss the anarchic sense of fun that he once brought to action. Inhuman speed and fluidity are a poor substitute for that cackle that used to infuse his every frame.

Woody Allen and Treat Williams kvetch
Woody Allen and Treat Williams kvetch

The cackle is gone from Woody Allen's movies, too, and Hollywood Ending—the third of his broad comedies for DreamWorks—had me wishing he'd go back to drama. Did I just write that? I can't be serious. … I think I'm serious.

Hollywood Ending is a strange sort of fiasco—more interesting than Small Time Crooks (2000) and Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001) but more depressing, too: You can see the potential, and you can also see the places where Allen didn't (couldn't?) rise to the occasion. He plays a washed-up director who—thanks to a campaign by his ex-wife (Tea Leoni), who's engaged to marry a studio head (Treat Williams)—lands a job directing a big-budget Manhattan melodrama and promptly goes blind. You don't have to be a therapist to see the subtext here—though it's announced by a therapist (among others) in the picture itself. Allen has dramatized an aging filmmaker's worst nightmare, a fantasy of creative impotence in which every artistic (and personal) gesture is a stab in the dark.

The trouble is that Allen thinks of slapstick comedy as a Lesser Form. His audience—and potential financing—having dwindled over the years, he's here under duress. He's rehashing old themes (masturbation jokes, anyone?) and going through old motions for a public he doesn't respect. At times he seems to be satirizing himself for being out of touch, but his snobbery is stronger than ever (only Tea Leoni's blessedly dry, sane line readings keep her character from looking like an idiot), and the thrust of the thing is that the culture has grown coarser while he has clung stubbornly to his aesthetic refinement.

Allen has complained for so long about comedy being "the children's table" that he might have forgotten how difficult it was to hold his place at it—that as blindingly brilliant as his instincts were, he probably had to work harder and at a higher level of inspiration on Bananas (1971) than on, say, his Chekhov or Ingmar Bergman retreads. There is nothing wrong with Hollywood Ending that two or three more drafts wouldn't have fixed. He might have realized, for one thing, that he was building to a punch line that never comes: a scene or two from the blind director's hilariously disjointed final product, in which none of the camera angles make sense and nothing cuts together. Here was an occasion for Allen to use his genius for parody to contrive a deliberately chaotic syntax—to play as puckishly with form as he did back in What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966). Instead, people comment on the disaster, as in an old drawing-room comedy. The picture ends with a funny but oddly self-destructive jab at France (home of Allen's most loyal fans now that Vincent Canby is gone) and a Dramamine joke.

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