Friday, April 23, 2004

Video: In the Cut (2003)

Once I would rush out to see whatever movie had the hoi polloi in an uproar. Then I realized that most of these films are exercises in provocation that seldom live up to the hype. So now I usually catch ‘em on video. Come back in six months and watch me get het up about THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST and DOGVILLE long after everyone else has forgotten them. I’m running one scandal behind.

Jane Campion’s erotic thriller is based on Susanna Moore’s novel. As a thriller, it’s a disaster. Campion can’t be bothered with basics like conveying the passage of time, so we never know how many hours or days have passed between scenes. Teacher Meg Ryan has sex with detective Mark Ruffalo while trying to make up her mind about whether he’s the killer he claims to be pursuing, and that’s the extent of the suspense. When Joe Eszterhas cranked out screenplays with that set-up nobody mistook them for art, and occasionally they were good, sleazy fun. Not here. Campion’s one of those directors who uses the thriller form because its flexibility allows her to plumb other issues. But she doesn’t follow the form’s rules. I doubt she even took the trouble to learn them.

You’re left, then, with the eroticism, and here the movie fails, too. There are eight million stories in the nearly naked city but Campion focuses on a hermetically-sealed group of five people, all of whom need serious face time with a therapist. The movie has an instinctive feel for New York: the oppressive summer heat, the ever-present scrim of ugliness punctuated by unlikely beauty. Campion, abetted by cinematographer Dion Beebe, crafts a marvelous look. Out of focus shots framed as if we’re peering at something we’re not supposed to see, arty flashbacks galore. But technique can’t fill in the blanks. Campion has worked out exactly how to say something before figuring out what she wants to say.

In just a few years, Mark Ruffalo has gone from obscurity to being the best thing about whatever movie he’s in. Fans of TOUGH CROWD WITH COLIN QUINN are in for a shock when they see regular Patrice O’Neal. Meg Ryan undeservedly took a lot of heat for her performance. The character of Frannie is never more than a vehicle to explore half-formed notions about sexual awakening. Nicole Kidman, who was to play the role and is credited here as producer, would have been a better choice. She has an uncanny ability to play directorial fantasias, giving human dimension to parts that are emblematic (as in EYES WIDE SHUT or MOULIN ROUGE). Ryan is a more grounded actress (you have to be in romantic comedy), and it’s in trying to fix Frannie in reality that she stumbles. Mumbling poetry in the subway, behaving inappropriately with her students; Ryan tries to weave these disparate threads together and only comes up with enough rope to hang herself. It doesn’t help that she employs the voice she used in another, far better movie, JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO.

As for the much-ballyhooed nude scenes, all I could think was: that’s one well-toned public school teacher. Celebrities in the buff are like the concept cars at an auto show; they look like the heaps you’re used to, but it’s obvious that a lot more time and money has gone into them.

Music: Music Choice

A partial list of albums featured on my cable company’s “Light Classical” station:

Play Bach!; Build Your Baby’s Brain 5; Music For My Little Friends; Night Moods, Piano Dreams; Encore!; Werke Fur Gitarre; Build Your Baby’s Brain 3; Mad About Guitars; Railway Train Music, Volume 2.