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BOYS AND GIRLS

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The strictly generic title of this new vehicle for Freddie
Prinze, Jr. is quite appropriate, given that it’s little more
than a formulaic recycling of the will-the-guy-get-the-girl-
who’s-obviously-meant-for-him plot which John Hughes regularly
used, though with steadily diminishing returns, in his teen
comedies of the late eighties. One of the few distinctions of
this version is that it sets the story on a college campus
rather than in a highschool–which at least means that we’re
spared a resolution at the senior prom. Another difference,
unfortunately, is that the situations provided by the
first-time scripters credited collectively as The Drews (Andrew
Lowery and Andrew Miller) are extraordinarily contrived, and
the dialogue remarkably arch; the writers are clearly out to
engage both the funnybone and the heart, but since nothing that
happens over the course of the 90-minute running time seems
remotely true–everything has the coarseness and superficial
character of strained situation comedy–the result is anemic
at best.

We first meet Ryan as a nerdy twelve-year old on an airplane
ready to depart (he’s played in this first scene by Brendon
Ryan Barret, but Prinze soon takes over); seated beside him
is Jennifer (Raquel Beaudene in the initial sequence, then
Claire Forlani), a loquacious thing who’s just had her first
period and is anxious to tell the poor boy about the experience.
The two bicker for a couple of minutes until the scene changes
abruptly to four years later, when the pair meet again at a
highschool football game. They squabble once more, and we then
lurch ahead two more years, when Ryan and Jennifer bump into
one another on the Berkeley campus, with the former an incoming
freshman and the latter a world-wise, and still terribly
loquacious, junior. Ultimately they bond while commiserating
over their respective romantic difficulties, and become the
best of (platonic) friends. The big question then arises–
whether the two will ever realize that they’re meant for one
another and overcome their fear that if they grow romantically
attached, their friendship will suffer. No one who’s ever seen
a movie will be much surprised by the outcome.

This sort of fluff can occasionally work despite its shopworn
character, but in this case the cast isn’t strong enough to
overcome the script deficiencies. Prinze is, as usual, an
amiable enough fellow, but as an actor he remains pretty much
a blank, pretty face. To be sure, he tries to vary his usual
routine by trying some geeky stuff at the beginning, wearing
black-rimmed glasses and unflattering clothes and stumbling
about like a miniature Clark Kent. But not too far in, these
affectations are dismissed and he becomes the same bland, though
photogenic, hunk he was in “She’s All That” and “Down to You.”
Forlani is probably a technically more accomplished performer,
but the Drews’ material makes her come across as surprisingly
irritating here; she rather resembles, both in appearance
and in aggressive style, a younger version of Barbra Striesand,
and that’s hardly an ingratiating thing. Forlani is also
compelled to spout Latin phrases from time to time (she’s an
intellectual Classics major, you see)–a practice which
makes Jennifer seem like an affected twit–and to recite not
one but two of those awful monologues in which a character
loudly addresses a bunch of hapless bystanders; such moments
are supposed to be charming, of course, but they’re almost
always embarrassingly flat, as is sadly true in this instance.

Naturally the couple is provided with the wacky buddies that
are required by the formula–in this case their roommates,
played by Jason Biggs and Amanda Detmer. Biggs, who won some
attention in “American Pie,” is the stereotypically horny
dude who’s always unlucky at love, and his constant come-on
attempts are far too broad to be funny; he’s also the focus
of a truly awful sequence played against the end titles,
involving the inevitable flatulence jokes. (One can only
suppose that there wasn’t room for the piece in the picture
itself, but somebody thought it too good to throw away; bad
mistake). Detmer is suitably dippy as Jennifer’s closest
friend, but there’s a moment near the close concerning their
relationship that comes so far out of left field that it’s an
almost gruesomely puzzling miscalculation. Nobody else in the
cast is given time to make much of an impreesion, including
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” star Alyson Hannigan, who appears
briefly as Ryan’s highschool sweetheart.

Director Robert Iscove, who previously directed Prinze in “She’s
All That,” manages to secure some nice shots of the San
Francisco area, but his handling of the actors is perfunctory
at best, and matters aren’t made any better by the editing of
Casey Rohrs, who allows scenes to drag on far too long. Still,
in most respects the picture looks better than many examples
of the genre; veteran cinematographer Ralph Bode is still
doing good work.

You have to give “Boys and Girls” some credit for at least
attempting to say something about modern notions of friendship
and commitment. It’s a pity that what it eventually comes up
with is so stale and trite.

MISSION TO MARS

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Having forsaken his series of homages to Alfred Hitchcock,
which ended with the dreadful “Raising Cain” in 1992, Brian De
Palma has now apparently turned his attention to aping the
late Stanley Kubrick’s work. “Mission to Mars” is like a
version of “2001: A Space Odyssey” stripped of all the
earlier film’s intelligence and grandeur. While Kubrick’s
1968 opus was a transcendent experience, deeply ambiguous and
visually startling, De Palma’s picture is, despite its outer-
space motif, an entirely earthbound affair, as crudely explicit
as an episode of the old “Flash Gordon” serials and just about
as cheesy to look at.

The juvenile plot involves an emergency mission to the Red
Planet designed to rescue any members of an earlier expedition
who might have survived a catastrophic encounter with some
unexplained force on the Mars surface. Peopled by cardboard
characters and told in incessantly lame dialogue that sounds
as though it’s been written by a 13-year old who’s been held
back several grades in school, the movie details the myriad
vicissitudes suffered by the crew before concluding with a
dopey denouement that’s part great escape and part “Close
Encounters of the Third Kind”-style beatific optimism. It’s
typical of the difference between Kubrick’s and De Palma’s
visions that while the fotmer’s film ended in existential
mystery, the latter’s winds up with sentimental drivel.

Given the poverty-row quality of the script, it’s not
surprising that while the cast is good, the acting is atrocious.
Tim Robbins smiles vacantly as the mission commander, and Gary
Sinise, as his co-pilot, seems to be making up for his rabid
overacting in “Reindeer Games” by here underplaying so
stenuously that he almost disappears from the screen. Jerry
O’Connell tries to provide some comic relief as the most
exuberant member of the crew, but what passes for wit in his
lines is puerile, while Don Cheadle, playing the commander of
the apparently doomed first expedition, works hard to create a
character where none exists. As Robbins’ spouse, who’s also
a member of the rescue mission, Connie Nielsen is simply awful.
Under the circumstances it’s understandable that Armin Mueller-
Stahl should have decided to remain unbilled as the NASA
mission director; apart from a couple of instances when he’s
required to throw up his hands and irritatedly say “Now wait
a minute,” he’s given approximately nothing to do but look
bored–an expression which would seem to qualify him for a
place in the audience, not the cast.

Is there anything of note in “Mission to Mars”? Well, a few
of the effects are decent enough; but overall they pale
beside the impact of Kubrick’s work of more than three decades
ago. And its alternately comic-book, soap-opera approach is
embarrassing in comparison to the brilliant iconoclasm of
“2001.” De Palma has made some excellent films (“Carrie,”
“Blow Out,” “The Untouchables” and “Casualties of War”), and
even his lesser efforts (“Sisters,” “Obsession,” “The Fury,”
“Dressed to Kill, “Scarfare,” “Carlito’s Way”) often had
compensating virtues that made them watchable. But this new
picture falls into the third category of his big-budget works–
resolutely bad movies in which the strengths are few and far
between. “Wise Guys,” “Body Double,” “Raising Cain,” “Bonfire
of the Vanities” and “Mission: Impossible” are representative
examples, and “Mission to Mars” may be the worst of the bunch.