If you think the title sounds ominous, like an elegy to the late Beatle as sung by a childrens choir knee-deep in Beulah Land, consider the rest of Harrisons Flowers. Theres Andie MacDowell, a performer of light, brittle talent if excellent hair and teeth, plus earnest Everyman David Strathairn, best known for keeping his chin up in various John Sayles morality tales, plus . . . Croatia, 1991. Perhaps something got lost in the translation. The films co-writer and director, Elie Chouraqui, a Frenchman whose previous movies have been dramas and romantic comedies, most of which never made it out of France, drew inspiration for this feature from a book by photojournalist Isabel Ellsen called Le Diable a lAvantage, an autobiographical account of the authors affair with another photographer during the Croatian civil war. From this material, published in 1995, Chouraqui along with co-writers Ellsen and Didier Le Pecheur have fashioned a premise so patently absurd, so implausible, they might as well have pitched it to the Oxygen channel: Suburban American wife goes looking for her missing husband in the middle of the Croatian war. But heres the punch line -- when it isnt straining credulity or patience, the film is rattling you down to your bones.
MacDowell is Sarah Lloyd, a photo editor at Newsweek whose husband, Harrison (Strathairn), wins the magazine Pulitzers for shooting atrocity photographs. Recently returned from Africa and its reliably photogenic misery, Harrison has decided to hang up his Canon. But like the movie sheriff who yearns to turn his six-guns into plowshares, Harrison has one last mission in him, as well as a contract to fulfill -- which is why he winds up in Croatia, where he promptly disappears. Until this point, Harrisons Flowers has been watchable but undistinguished. MacDowell, Strathairn and the production design are easy on the eyes, and theres grit in a supporting performance by Alun Armstrong as Sam, the editor who sends Harrison to the Balkans. However, a scene at an awards ceremony honoring Harrisons colleague Yeager Pollack (Elias Koteas), as well as a subsequent bathroom showdown between Harrison and a younger photographer, Kyle (Adrien Brody), are the sort of phony, overblown set pieces in which characters dont as much talk as spell out themes in 72-point type. In the mens room, Kyle, nose powdered with cocaine, sneers about journalistic ethics and guts to Harrison, while the beret-wearing Yeager waves a crutch around and the film itself veers perilously toward the abyss of pure movie schlock.
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Then something happens. In the newsroom, Sarah learns of Harrisons disappearance and crumples to the ground, waving off colleagues with a trembling hand. After burrowing into grief, she persuades herself that her husband is still alive, kisses the kids goodbye, flies to Austria and rents a car. (Its strange to think of someone driving into war, but thats exactly what she does. The rental agent worriedly asks if shes going to Yugoslavia, as the last car came back with holes.) Accompanied by a Croatian hitchhiker, Sarah crosses the border between Austria and a disintegrating Yugoslavia and, on an otherwise empty road, drives past one abandoned farm after another. Its eerily quiet. Back in New York, Sarah had been watching the war on television, and its prepared us for the sound of gunfire, perhaps for distant explosions, but here even nature has gone mute. There are no barnyard birds, no cows, nothing. Suddenly, as if out of thin air, a woman runs past at breakneck speed. Sarah glances back quizzically, a frown tugging at her mouth, then pulls into the wreckage of a small village. At this point, the tension in the film is electric, almost unbearable, like that moment when youre watching a too-scary movie -- not the moment when the monster attacks but the one just before, when the story seems to drop out, leaving a quiet only violence can fill. In Harrisons Flowers, the quiet fills in with a roar, and in one stunning, heart-clutching scene Sarah almost loses her life, even as Chouraqui goes a long way toward saving his film.
A long way, but not far enough. What happens next is visceral, unrelenting, affecting and, as often, exasperating. Sarah joins up with a group of photojournalists, one of whom happens to be Kyle, who, along with another photographer (Brendan Gleeson), travels with Sarah to Vukovar, where Harrison may be hospitalized. Its all pretty nutty -- enough, unfortunately, to take you out of the story every so often, mostly to imagine the compromises that found a film this graphic and bloody, set against a war in which thousands lost their lives, headed up by the star of Four Weddings and a Funeral. Whats even nuttier, though, is how much of it does work. If you dont think too much about MacDowells beauty, apparent even under smears of red, its because she doesnt have to do much except look wild-eyed like everyone else. In Chouraquis Vukovar, what matters are the dead and the nearly dead, along with Nicola Pecorinis urgent camera work. In a recent New York Times article, correspondent Stephen Kinzer criticized Harrisons Flowers for including, among other improbabilities, photographers who shoot wars standing, rather than lying down. What he didnt observe was that by watching a war through its photojournalists instead of its soldiers, we see something thats become increasingly rare at the movies -- a war not just of heroes and villains, but of ordinary people, both the journalists and those they photograph. Here, after all, is a movie that, at its best, makes you forget who its star is.
In Showtime, yet another bootleg copy of the Lethal Weapon franchise, Robert De Niro and Eddie Murphy play another of the LAPDs endearingly cuddly odd couples. Following various plot complications but mainly because the pairing of these two leads seemed somehow inevitable, undercover detective Mitch Preston (De Niro) teams up with Trey Sellars (Murphy), street cop and aspiring actor, and together the two become stars of a reality-television program called Showtime. Gruff, professional, probably psychotic and absent any visible tan, Mitch looks and sounds as if hed be a lot more at home munching Krispy Kremes on Manhattans West Side than taking sass from Trey, whose idea of good policing, and good acting, comes from a close study of T.J. Hooker. The producer of the TV program, Chase Renzi, is played by Rene Russo, whose facility at making throwaway banter while making eyes at the white lead was well established in both the third and fourth chapters of the Lethal Weapon opus, the last of which was written by two of this films writers, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar. Showtime is better than the fourth Lethal Weapon, which was pretty bad, but not as good as the original Lethal Weapon or the superior 48HRS., the first movie in which Murphy put a jive brother into play against an uptight if fundamentally righteous older white guy.
Unlike Nick Nolte, though, De Niro isnt actually playing a part but riffing on his own legend, much as he did to much worse effect in last years despicable 15 Minutes. In that cop movie, a two-hander with Edward Burns, De Niro starred as still another famous detective up against still another bad guy from a foreign country. Then it was a crazy Czech; now its some crazy Spanish guy of indeterminate national origin named Vargas, played with brio by Pedro Damian (recently seen in Collateral Damage, a thriller about crazy Colombians). In 15 Minutes, De Niro invoked Travis Bickle, the psychopathic hero of Taxi Driver, and here he does the same, this time with a brief recapitulation of Travis iconic You talkin to me? speech. Its cheap, but its also pretty funny -- though not as deft and feather-light as it should be, partly because director Tom Dey, who previously made old-fashioned raillery out of the ethnic odd-coupling of Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan in Shanghai Noon, needs to pick up his pace, or at least a better script. (Too often De Niros burn is more poky than slow.) The other problem is that, unlike in last years comic mismatch with Ben Stiller in Meet the Parents, De Niro doesnt show enough visible contempt for his partner, while Murphy, who plays to the older actor instead of against him, shows nothing but affection. What Murphy and De Niro show for William Shatner, whos either very game or out of his mind, is something entirely different.