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Soderbergh at play, Pollack at rest

Wednesday, Oct 6 1999
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Reviewing the all but impenetrable Schizopolis (a film I liked) a couple of years back, I concluded with all due unction that Steven Soderbergh, a director known for following his own nose rather than his agent‘s, had finally committed professional suicide. Shortly thereafter, the airily charming romantic comedy Out of Sight set up Soderbergh as one of the more bankable filmmakers in town.

Prediction is invariably a mug’s game, but especially when applied to Soderbergh, whose instinct following success (sex, lies and videotape) is to duck and make a beeline for the arcane (Kafka). His new film, a loose remake of Mike Hodges‘ Get Carter, marks a return to the low budget and the hand-held camera. Though it’s powered by the same larky elan as Out of Sight, The Limey is a rougher-hewn and, finally, a more somber and philosophical work. The pretext is a murder mystery with enough action to make a decent living off the young and the restless, overlaid with a wistful boomer metaphysic about an encounter between two men living on time borrowed from that indeterminate era we lazily peg as the ‘60s. Terence Stamp plays Wilson, an aging English ex-con who lands in L.A. to find out who killed his estranged daughter, Jenny, and to avenge her death in the one language of redress he understands. Which means that by the time he tracks down his daughter’s former lover Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), a record producer who made his fortune packaging the ‘60s and now lives so far beyond his financial and emotional means that he scarcely knows himself, Wilson has thrown enough punches and offed enough thugs to get himself and a couple of new friends into serious trouble.

As an actor, Stamp has always been a bit of a stiff, though it hardly matters, given that Grecian face, with its flinty eyes and gorgeously carved features scarcely softened by time. You could die happy looking at him, even when he plays the Limey as a walking caricature of the working-class Londoner, a fountain gushing with the overfamiliar rhyming slang no self-respecting Cockney would take seriously. One assumes this is quite deliberate, for Soderbergh is always toying with time, place -- and, in The Limey, goofily referential casting -- to hang quotes around the whole idea of character. Wilson, whom we see musing on a plane, in a cab, flashing forward to his arrival at the house of Jenny’s friend Ed (Luis Guzman), flashing back to images of Jenny, flashing forward again to his imagined revenge, is less a character than a frame of mind in flux, teeming with memory, pain and rage. Even his past, paraphrased in scenes from Ken Loach‘s 1967 film Poor Cow, in which Stamp played a young thief named Wilson, is not his own. It’s an amusingly off-kilter homage: Soderbergh the stylist doffs his cap to Loach the hyperrealist.

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To the English ear Wilson sounds like a cut-rate parody of Dickens (“‘Oo dunnit, then? ’Oo snuffed ‘er?”), but Soderbergh and his screenwriter, Lem Dobbs, use the argot to establish Wilson as an alien, a stranger who observes L.A. with uncomprehending suspicion, while it returns the favor. Through Wilson’s eyes, Los Angeles rears up as a boundaryless nowhere ranging from seedy warehouses protected by the muscled goons who run the drug racket, to an overbearing mansion canted drunkenly over a cliff top. Only the slow wave of a palm tree, glimpsed from below, flags a momentary appreciation of the city‘s beauty.

If Wilson the thief is a tired shadow of the gilded London age that made Stamp a star, his quarry, brilliantly played by Fonda, serves as a jaded relic of that actor’s earlier self, both onscreen (Easy Rider) and off. In between the self-consciously stagy brawls, The Limey is a disappointed meditation on the ‘60s. “When you were there, you knew the language,” Terry tells his girlfriend. And then, sadly, revises: “It wasn’t even that. It was ‘66 and ’67, that‘s all it was.” When it is far too late, and under the worst of circumstances, these two ruined men discover they have more in common than the failure to live up to their own promise and that of the decade in which they came of age. Both loved the same woman to distraction, and both sold her tragically short. Which may or may not be worse than betraying a decade. Stamp and Fonda, stars and casualties and, finally, survivors of that era, may have earned their disillusion the hard way, but one wonders how Soderbergh and Dobbs, both of whom were mere nippers in 1967, came to be so world-weary. Smart, funny and soulful though The Limey is, if that’s all of “the ‘60s” that remains in current memory, then, as Wilson might say, it’s a poor do.

An old-fashioned film in sleekly up-to-the-minute clothing, Sydney Pollack‘s latest deserves a “T” for trying, and I don’t mean that entirely facetiously. Perhaps because it‘s based on a 15-year-old screenplay, Random Hearts is that almost extinct animal, a movie that takes infidelity seriously. That alone might might be refreshing, if only the premise -- a romance of sorts between two strangers who come together in shock after discovering that their spouses, who have just died in an air crash, were traveling as Mr. and Mrs. -- were less burdened with coincidence, and the protagonists less burdened with high minds.

Harrison Ford plays Dutch Van Den Broeck, a cop who, despite cool duds and a diamond stud in his ear (the missus worked in fashion), fairly bristles with the same old-school integrity that drives Kay Chandler (Kristin Scott Thomas), a New Hampshire Republican congresswoman up for re-election. The two meet in the morgue and, after some sleuthing on Dutch’s part, discover that they have more in common than simple grief. Within minutes they‘re French-kissing in Kay’s car, which won‘t do at all, not just because each has a hefty subplot to see to, but because neither has yet reached the required level of therapeutic enlightenment. Dutch goes into a paranoid tailspin that nearly loses him his partner (ably, as always, played by Charles S. Dutton), while Kay sails full throttle into a level of denial that jeopardizes both her career and her relationship with her teenage daughter. The friction this polarity is supposed to generate never ignites, because Ford and Scott Thomas have only personality between them, and that so heaped with purity of heart you want to poke it to see if it moves. This is not the first time that Ford, who needs a firecracker like Anne Heche (Six Days, Seven Nights) to stir his lost-soul charm, has foundered on British reserve. The actor came on like a log of wood opposite the frosty Julia Ormond in Pollack’s last film, Sabrina, and he‘s not much more persuasive here opposite Scott Thomas, a gifted actress who, despite her promising start in Four Weddings and a Funeral, has been saddled ever since with a string of frigid porcelain beauties to play.

The few moments with any zip at all in this glacially paced movie have all to do with political process, which Pollack, who plays Kay’s media consultant in the movie, understands rather well. “What are you going to run as -- a nice person?” he asks his client. She does, and gets what‘s coming. Only by then Random Hearts has spread itself so thin between plot, subplots and great scads of floppy pop-psych, it has nothing else to do but lie down and die of exhaustion.

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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