The Legend of Zorro and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang teeter deftly between giggles and thrills

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
Oct. 28 2005 3:46 PM

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The Legend of Zorro and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang teeter deftly between giggles and thrills. Plus, Mr. Sulu and The Weather Man.

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Downey spins joyfully back and forth between farce and realism. Is there any leading man more fun to watch? Even in the darkest days of his addiction, I never heard stories about diva behavior or lazy work: He was always trying to top himself, and he gets better and better. James Toback in Two Girls and a Guy nailed something in his personality: the way he uses his big teddy bear eyes to put on a cute show, yet keeps something morbid in reserve. He's dodgy—but too honest an actor to keep this struggle under wraps. Downey's Harry is the perfect mascot for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: an innocent riddled with self-disgust.

Waking up with Mr. Sulu 
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Waking up with Mr. Sulu

Where No Star Trek Actor Has Gone Before: What a shock 10 years ago to amble down to breakfast at a lovely Savannah B & B and find myself across the communal table from ... Mr. Sulu—and with a young man who was clearly his lover! You can't tell from Star Trek that George Takei is a hugely theatrical presence, with a voice that ricochets off walls and a deep laugh. I didn't acknowledge his celebrity or ask him about Star Trek—or the Japanese detention camp in which he spent part of his youth. We talked about the architecture and culture of Savannah, and he was remarkably observant (and friendly). He said he was on his way to the Renaissance Weekend at Hilton Head—the legendary conference for the best and the brightest. I went upstairs and told my girlfriend (a late riser) that I'd just had breakfast with Mr. Sulu, that he was gay, and that he was going up to spend the weekend with Bill and Hillary Clinton and a lot of other important intellectuals. She said, "Uh-huh," and chalked this up to one too many mint juleps the night before. It was very satisfying to pick up the paper a few days later and read about the conference, attended by the Clintons, Robert Reich, etc., etc.—"and, oddly," the reporter wrote, "George Takei from Star Trek."

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So it wasn't a dream.

I've been itching to write about this for years. … Congratulations, Mr. Takei, for being as unashamed as you were that morning, and for boldly entering this, our final cultural frontier for public figures.

Tagline of the Month: "Sometimes the last person on earth you want to be with is the only person you can't be without."

Any idea what the movie could be? I'll give you a hint. The poster also says, "From the beloved author of Sense and Sensibility …"

Maybe we should have a contest to see who can top that. You know: "A bite of a cookie begins a terrifying journey of life and death!"

Metaphor alert: Cage is trying to focus. 
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Metaphor alert: Cage is trying to focus

Meanwhile, if you're in the neighborhood of Charlottesville, Va., I'm here at the Virginia Film Festival moderating two panels: the first on Saturday night with Sissy Spacek, Kathy Baker, and writer-director Rodrigo Garcia of Nine Lives, a new omnibus drama that shatteringly demonstrates the emotional power of single, sustained takes; and a panel Sunday afternoon on the modern perils of indie distribution, featuring directors of six worthy American movies without distribution and the distributors who love (but not enough to fall for) them. Come say, "Hey." Nicolas Cage couldn't have found a more natural fit than David Spritz, the title character of The Weather Man (Paramount). Cage is a very entertaining actor, but he's not much of an inter-actor. A showboater who lovingly cultivates his own idiosyncracies (I once called him a "role stylist"), he gravitates to solipsists—men who are emotionally at sea and find themselves, at a crucial juncture in their lives, reaching out forlornly through the fog. That's certainly the case with Spritz, who changed his name from "Spritzel" at his TV station's request (a lot of weathermen adopt cute meteorological names like "Storm") and feels shallow and ridiculous in his new persona—especially when passers-by repeat his stupid catchphrases or inexplicably bombard him with Slurpees or Big Gulps.

Spritz is having one of the most naked existential crises I've seen in a movie—and, folks, I've seen 'em all. In his state of chaos, he can't get anywhere near the wavelength of his heavy daughter (Gemmenne de la Pena) or pothead son (Nicholas Hoult), both of whom are rapidly approaching their own crisis points. He wants desperately to get back with his ex-wife, Noreen (Hope Davis), but she's fed up with his self-centered spaciness: She doesn't trust him to take care of her—rightly. And his father, Robert Spritzel (Michael Caine), a famous novelist, has just been diagnosed with lymphoma, and uses the occasion to remind his son, again and again, that it's time to become a responsible adult.

Steven Conrad's script is—with the exception of one subplot—superb. He makes David's narration wry and extremely funny without mitigating the film's essential bleakness, and the squirm scenes aren't reflexive, the way they are (this year, especially) in Curb Your Enthusiasm. The embarrassments come from David's wildly imperfect stabs at expressing his true feelings—his behavior in stark contrast to the gravity of his father, a miracle of self-discipline and centeredness. (Despite a spotty American accent—Why do English actors playing Yanks have to hit those "r's" so harrrd?—Caine does it again: His gravity and self-containment are perfect.)

The one grace note in this symphony of despair is that Cage's Spritz is terrific on television. True, he's not a meteorologist, but we can see (on omnipresent monitors) that he's a master at engaging the viewer's eye: It makes sense that he's a finalist for a gig on a national morning show. But reading the weather comes easily to David; it doesn't stretch him. He knows his talent is minor and disposable—he even likens it to fast food. (A fast-food motif runs through the film, with key scenes taking place around Arby's, Wendy's, and Starbucks.) He can't chuck his dreams of becoming a novelist like his dad—or of doing something, anything, more meaningful. The movie builds to an unusually double-edged epiphany, a downbeat variation on "accept who you are." It's finally about chucking your dreams, if for no other reason than to help you make peace with the real world—and maybe (although this isn't spelled out) to be a good father and husband.

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