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Sex-mad and Self-obsessed 

Frida, meet Roger Dodger

Wednesday, Oct 23 2002
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MAD, SAD OR BAD -- THAT'S HOW WE LIKE OUR artists, at least in the movies, and in the case of Frida Kahlo, it's no great stretch from the life to the art. The Mexican painter spent much of her adult life in excruciating physical pain, the result of a horrible traffic accident. Her art was fiercely autobiographical, not to say self-obsessed. And she was married twice to the compulsively unfaithful muralist Diego Rivera, which ought to be enough excitement for anyone.

And then there was the sex. I mean, is it any wonder that she only managed to produce 200 paintings before she died? According to Julie Taymor's new film, Kahlo was terribly busy getting it on with Diego Rivera, with his girlfriends and her own, with Trotsky, and again with Rivera. And when she wasn't having sex, or trying to prevent Rivera from having sex with everyone but her, including her own sister, she was having feelings -- the grand, over-the-top flights of joy and pain we anemic ordinary mortals know only from soap opera, of which Frida is a superior specimen. This isn't entirely inappropriate, for in the more than half a century since her death, Kahlo has passed into mere celebrity, not to say kitsch. Her radiantly angry face glowers out from posters, key rings and mouse pads, and outside art circles she's better known for her unibrow and furry upper lip than for her paintings. She's also been co-opted, not especially helpfully, by a misguided wing of the women's movement bent on embalming every public female figure with a less than blissful domestic life as a tragic casualty of patriarchy.

Taymor, to her credit, is having none of this. Frida, which is adapted from a 1983 biography by Hayden Herrera, steadfastly refuses to portray Kahlo as a hapless victim. Indeed, without denying that Rivera was feckless, promiscuous and incapable of sustaining a normal family life, or that Kahlo suffered terribly from his infidelities and her own infirmity, the movie is downright perky, not to say brisk, in tone. Frida begins as it ends, with Kahlo (Salma Hayek) laughing through her pain as she arrives at her own retrospective in a four-poster bed. Then we're swept back to her school days, where we see her giggling like a regular Pippi Longstocking as she spies on Rivera (Alfred Molina) applying his creative juices to an artist's model while being berated by his wife (Valeria Golino). This is good fun, but I doubt whether Kahlo was ever quite the cheeky minx that Hayek portrays. Exuberant and irrepressible even in her bad movies, the actress has presence to burn. (It's always a surprise to see how tiny she actually is, especially here, where she's lugging around an eyebrow that must weigh half as much as she does.) Making Frida was Hayek's life's dream, and if depth of character ization is not her strong suit, at the very least she must be thanked for saving us from Madonna and J.Lo, both of whom were interested in the project during the tortured eight years it took to get off the ground.

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That said, the movie is not much more than a conventional biopic, tricked out in the visual finery that has made Taymor's theater work (The Odyssey, The Haggadah, The Lion King) so striking. Thrown, perhaps by the resounding thud of her extravagant first film, Titus, or, reportedly, by the hovering scissors of Miramax's Harvey Weinstein, Taymor has gone resolutely pop with Frida, not always in well-chosen ways. I'm not sure which image is the more gratuitously sickening: Kahlo impaled by a pole in the trolley-bus crash, or the pretty gold dust that Taymor obsessively sprinkles around the artist's prone body, or, later, of the full frontal on her gangrenous toes. For the rest, Frida tours the well-trodden highs and lows of Kahlo's life, raising the emotional temperature as it goes. We see her apprenticeship and subsequent marriage to Rivera, the pair's numerous affairs, fights, separations and reconciliations, and the final friendly accommodation that allowed them to live together until Kahlo's death, at 47 in 1954. Much shouting and posturing ensues, with the odd exception of Alfred Molina's capable but incongruous underplaying, which renders Rivera, by any measure a larger-than-life figure, as a naughty teddy bear to Kahlo's impassioned diva.

You can punch all sorts of holes in Frida. The endearingly awful script, adapted and re-adapted by an army of writers, treats us to regular bouts of Communist speechifying and an unwittingly hilarious encounter with a white-bearded Trotsky, within whom lurks Geoffrey Rush, hissing Russian sibilants as if his career depended on it. The movie's feel for the political and artistic temper of the times is inbred at best. "You've aroused passions," declaims Kahlo in New York to a Rivera crushed by the destruction of his Leninist mural for Nelson Rockefeller (an unusually tepid Edward Norton), "made people think about their ideals. What other painter can claim that?" Er, Picasso, maybe?

Still, there's something oddly moving about the film purely as a love story between two people who were more alike than was good for them, yet somehow stuck it out. What we see in Frida is not Kahlo the painter, but Kahlo the love of Rivera's life, as he was of hers -- a woman who gave as good as she got, and still hung in where other, less co-dependent women threw up their hands and fled.

NOTWITHSTANDING HIS UNCIVIL DESIRE TO curdle the stomachs of his audience with a hyperactive hand-held camera, young Dylan Kidd has talent. He can write dialogue, work skillfully with actors, and he has a pretty good handle on urban loneliness of the knowing, virulent New York City variety. Kidd was also fortunate enough, when it looked as though his script for Roger Dodger would go forever unnoticed, to bump into Campbell Scott, brave enough to show the actor the screenplay, and luckier still that Scott, who was tired of being cast as a sweet guy, was looking for a role as a nasty piece of work. Scott plays the eponymous Roger, a sleek advertising copywriter who spends his days "thinking up ways to make people feel bad" and his evenings either getting into the pants of women who can't resist his logorrheic charms, or hurling quietly psychoanalytic insults at those who can. He can't stop spewing, and when his boss (Isabella Rossellini, powerful here even without makeup), with whom he's been having an affair, dumps him, Roger consoles himself with an extra-abusive tear through the bar scene, which is interrupted by the arrival of his nephew Nick (the excellent Jesse Eisenberg), a pimply youth who's sorely in need of losing his virginity.

The rest is a night out on a town insidiously lit in livid yellow and dark shadows, in which Roger tries to initiate Nick into his philosophy of what makes women tick. Roger is the nonviolent version of Christian Bale's mad yupster in American Psycho -- you see the attraction for distributor Artisan Entertainment, which until its recent excursion into religion for kiddies (Veggie Tales) has made its money aggressively courting the snickering-youth demographic in films like The Blair Witch Project and Requiem for a Dream. Still, Kidd has none of the cynicism of his anti-hero: It's Nick -- earnest, organic-minded Nick -- that the women go for. There's a shattering shot of one of the pair's smart-mouthed dates (Jennifer Beals), who gives Nick his first kiss, looking inconsolably sad in the shadowy back seat of a taxi as it pulls away. I was with Roger Dodger all the way until its vile hero had an 11th-hour burst of insight that defied all belief. I didn't buy it, but I do want his therapist's phone number.

FRIDA | Directed by JULIE TAYMOR | Written by CLANCY SIGAL and DIANE LAKE and GREGORY NAVA & ANNA THOMAS Based on the book by HAYDEN HERRERA | Produced by SARAH GREEN, SALMA HAYEK, JAY POLSTEIN, LIZZ SPEED, NANCY HARDIN, LINDSAY FLICKINGER and ROBERTO SNEIDER | Released by Miramax Films | At Laemmle's Royal and Laemmle's Sunset 5

ROGER DODGER | Written and directed by DYLAN KIDD Produced by ANNE CHAISSON, KIDD and GEORGE VAN BUSKIRK | Released by Artisan Entertainment | At Laemmle's Sunset 5 and Landmark Regent

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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