Fertility science has been a blessing to the barren couples of the world, but it‘s been an even greater boon to the romantic comedy. What would cinema be without those bodily function jokes that audiences both straight and gay cherish so: The man-masturbating-in-a-cup joke, the woman-with-her-postcoital-legs-in-the-air bit, as well as that classic gag, the humiliating gynecological exam. Easy enough jokes to deliver, yet Hollywood keeps mis-telling them, leaving the genre ripe for takeover by some wily foreign director. That auteur is writer-director Ben Elton, who co-wrote The Young Ones and Blackadder, two wonderfully loopy British television shows, and who has now dispatched Maybe Baby to our shores, a film we hereby proclaim the finest fertility comedy ever made, in the faint hope that another will not be attempted.

Sam (Hugh Laurie), a BBC television exec, and his agent wife, Lucy (Joely Richardson), like all movie couples (and most movie stars), are desperate for a child, but they can’t conceive, despite being perfectly healthy (and terribly photogenic). The usual “stupid sperm” humor ensues, yet Elton has cleverly cast two serious actors in the lead roles, leaving the funny stuff to a blissfully insane supporting cast, who save the day. Rowan Atkinson, Lord Blackadder himself, makes an all-too-brief appearance as Lucy‘s demented doctor and gets a bit carried away with the K-Y jelly. Tom Hollander has great fun strutting about as Ewan Proclaimer, a superhip, heroin-obsessed Scottish director who is turning Sam and Lucy’s baby quest into an epic film (a nod, surely, to Trainspotting director Danny Boyle), while Emma Thompson is less inspired in a brief, unfocused turn as Lucy‘s hippie-dippy best friend.

Laurie and Richardson play Sam and Lucy as if this were high drama, thereby managing the rare feat of creating a couple whose happy ending feels honestly earned. Still, while their director may have lessons to teach American filmmakers about reinvigorating tired formulas (hire British comics), underneath it all Elton is abiding by Hollywood’s unwritten rules for giving a screen romance the stamp of authenticity: Great couples must procreate! You‘re not infertile, you’re just overworked! Never adopt! Because the genetic code of people as fabulous as you must continue on and on and on . . .

Once upon a time, Nicolas Cage was such an unpredictable and inventive performer that he was just about everyone‘s favorite actor-on-the-rise. With H.I., the stupefied baby-napper of Raising Arizona, and Ronny, the flour-drenched baker who literally swept Cher off her feet in Moonstruck, he showed a gift for large-hearted losers who were never ready to give up the fight. Cage later hit the Hollywood fantasy jackpot with a well-deserved Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas and big-money success as an action star, and ever since, he’s been doing the Bruce Willis waltz: trying to balance junk movies (Gone in 60 Seconds) with respectable prestige pictures (Bringing Out the Dead), as if he really believes it‘s possible to be a corporate lackey one day and a serious artist the next.

To be fair, it’s not solely Cage‘s fault that his new film, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, is lousy -- director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) deserves most of the heat for this listless dud -- but his performance is so off the mark that it feels as if he‘s the one to blame. As Antonio Corelli, an Italian soldier whose unit is occupying a tiny Greek island during World War II, Cage woos the brainy local beauty, Pelagia (Penelope Cruz), with a shocking absence of honest emotion. While it’s true that screenwriter Shawn Slovo (A World Apart) hasn‘t given him much to work with (having stripped away the quirky characteriza-tions that made Louis de Bernieres’ source novel so beloved), Cage doesn‘t evoke a lonely Italian soldier overcome by passion so much as a wind-up Nic Cage doll -- there’s the strut and the grin, here‘s the stricken, plaintive love-stare, but where’s the heart?

You may wish Pelagia would stick with Mandras (Christian Bale), the illiterate Greek fisherman she‘s engaged to, who goes off to fight the Nazis, only to return and find that Corelli and his more expressive mandolin have stolen his girl. For the film’s first 20 minutes, the fisherman has Pelagia to himself, and Bale brings to his courting of her such sweetness and hunky charm that Cage looks completely unworthy when he finally ambles into the story. If only the two men could have switched parts: In the good old days -- pre-Oscar, pre--The Rock and Con Air -- Cage might have played the fisherman, bringing no doubt the same Zorba the Greek grandiosity to the role that Bale manages so nimbly. Above-the-title billing has generally eluded Bale, but maybe he doesn‘t want it. Maybe he’s taken a look at what high-pressure stardom has done to the acting abilities of guys like Cage and decided it‘s more fun down below, where you stay hungry, and where it’s easy to steal the movie from its soul-depleted star.


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