The face of Takeshi ”Beat“ Kitano, preternaturally smooth and shiny from surgical reconstruction after a near-fatal motorbike accident in 1994, is a mask of goofy implacability, as if the Japanese actor and director were about to fire off either a burst of giggles, or of bullets. Kitano likes to goose his audience with both, often at once, in the wildly eccentric yakuza movies that have made him a star on the international film circuit. Not that the confluence of violence and comedy is unusual in this disclaiming age — when did you last see a gangster picture that wasn‘t tittering behind its hand? But there’s more to Kitano‘s work, an element of surprise and reflection that has his thuggish characters constantly slipping out of genre and into life, in unscheduled moments of beauty, serenity or just plain fun. Kitano’s rapturously received Fireworks (1997) was stuffed with visual shocks and treats, apparently staged for no other reason than the private pleasure of a director who‘s also a painter, cartoonist and standup comedian. Yet the film — in which Kitano played a former cop who, when not calmly whacking mobsters, cheerfully devotes himself to his terminally ill wife — achieved a wistful humanism as beguiling as it was unexpected.
Kitano uses genre much as an imaginative child will use the blueprints laid out by his parents, as a template offering just enough safety for a leap into the unknown. In his new movie, Kitano, ready as ever to confound our expectations, has dumped the blueprint altogether. True, in Kikujiro the occasional bedraggled hoodlum wanders into frame, but only for the purpose of declaring himself a pussycat in wolf’s clothing. That, too, is what Kitano is after, and it‘s his downfall: He wants to be the clown who cried, and it doesn’t suit him. As this sentimental road movie opens, Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi), a stolid 9-year-old who leaves his grandmother‘s house to go in search of the mother he has never met, is running happily along a street, the camera circling coyly to the back of him to reveal a turquoise backpack adorned with angel wings. The rest of the movie is devoted to showing us how they got there, and for all the strenuous comic sideshow Kitano lays on to distract us, Masao’s story is the cinematic equivalent of a big-eyed Keane painting.
Adrift without the discipline of his favorite genre, Kitano resorts to a transparent framing device, a sequence of photos from Masao‘s grandmother’s diary that pushes along what passes for plot. The boy, who rarely speaks and then only in affirmative grunts, is little more than a straight man for Kikujiro (played by Kitano with his trademark deadpan), the foul-mouthed idler who‘s dispatched by a family friend to chaperon Masao on his journey. At once conniving and inept, Kikujiro heads straight for the bicycle racetrack, where he fritters away Masao’s travel budget, forcing the two of them to take to the road and hitchhike their way to the town where the boy‘s mother may be living. Along the way they meet an assortment of types — a kindly, punkish young woman who juggles; a pair of easily intimidated Hell’s Angels; a skinny traveling poet — whose function is to provide Masao with all the parenting he needs, and Kitano with an outlet for the pratfalling television comedy that has made him a beloved icon in Japan.
Were these unthreatening misfits, or Kikujiro himself, truly the angels from hell that peopled Kitano‘s best work in Sonatine and Fireworks, there might have been a movie here. Instead, Kikujiro ends up a flabby vehicle for the most banal of road-movie messages: The journey’s the thing; the goal inevitably disappoints. And the wastrel turns out to have a warm heart, and a soft spot for lost little boys, of whom, Kitano hints all too broadly, he is one. Kikujiro, a fuck-up even when he‘s doing nothing, is modeled after Kitano’s father, a house painter and compulsive gambler who kept the family permanently unstable and must have been a giant thorn in his son‘s flesh to have earned such a flaying. Or such overnight redemption. Kikujiro’s salvation, and Masao‘s, come cheap and quick, though not nearly quick enough for me.
Passion of Mind, the product of an unlikely and by all accounts testy collaboration of Belgian director Alain Berliner (Ma Vie en Rose), screenwriter Ron Bass and Demi Moore, has lain ominously fallow for at least a year before being limped into limited release by Paramount Classics. Moore plays a woman with two incomplete lives. In one she’s Marie, a book reviewer and widowed mother of two girls who nonetheless manages to maintain a House and Garden lifestyle in a rambling French country home you‘d have to be an Internet millionaire to support. In the other she’s Marty, a hotshot New York literary agent with a loft the size of Madison Square Garden. We know that MartyMarie is an intensely literary woman, because she keeps getting into bed with books she never opens. We also know that she‘s intensely troubled, because Moore keeps lobbing wild stares at the camera while sweeping her hands through her hair as if searching for the horns of her dilemma: Which of her worlds is real, and which but a dream?
You might be forgiven for thinking that either way MarieMarty wins, for in each life a magnificent specimen of manhood materializes without so much as an ad in the personals. In France she is heavily courted by William Leeds (Stellan Skarsgard), a writer whose most recent book she trashed but who clearly thinks she looks lovely when she’s mad, while across the water Aaron (William Fichtner), an accountant and one of those steady, commitment-minded hunks with whom Bass‘ Manhattan has unaccountably become infested, won’t take no for an answer. If you factor in the two male therapists, one for each life, who rush in with sage counsel (”You‘re riding two horses at once, and the mind is not built to do that“) whenever the going gets rough, MartyMarie is surrounded with an abundance of available masculinity that’s guaranteed to have every single woman between Provence and the Hudson River in stitches.
It‘s no stretch to see why Berliner was so eager to get in bed with Hollywood, or why he’d be attracted to a story about the encounter between reality and fantasy. Ma Vie en Rose, about a little boy who lives as a girl in his dreams, was as commercial as it was charming and imaginative. Still, one wonders what was going through Berliner‘s mind as he read Bass’ screenplay, which, the contract stipulated, was not to be tampered with. It‘s hard to imagine a movie at once more pandering and insulting to adult women than Passion of Mind. MarieMarty’s problem is not deciding between dream and reality, or between career and family. (Ron Bass has kindly made that decision for her.) No, the really thorny issue confronting her is which man will be most hospitable to her true self, a coy, trembling little kitten who‘s itching to give birth, who describes last night’s presumably great sex (all we see of it is two hands clasped, in cliche, on the coverlet) as ”so yummy“ and whose secret role model is Julie Andrews. Ya, Zigmunt, but zere are reasons vy she iss as she iss. I will reveal neither what makes MartyMarie the split woman she is today, nor which way the cookie finally crumbles. Suffice it to say that those shrinks must have gone home happy.