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THE AFFAIR OF THE NECKLACE

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“It’s remarkable how quickly you’ve become tiresome,” the Countess de la Motte (Hilary Swank) says with a dismissive smile to the young fop Retaux de Vilette (Simon Baker) early on in Charles Shyer’s opulent period piece about a scandal that shook the French court in the mid-1780s. It’s a line that before too long a viewer might find himself repeating in the direction of the screen. “The Affair of the Necklace” turns out to be a coffee-table movie–one of those films that’s lavishly appointed and lovingly shot, but so static and amateurishly acted that it feels like an overproduced high-school pageant. It’s “Barry Lyndon” without the genius.

John Sweet’s script is based on the famous pre-revolutionary incident in which a cabal of schemers, led by a young woman intent on resuscitating the glory of her suppressed noble family name (Valois) and including her dissolute husband and social-climbing lover as well as the notorious charlatan Count Cagliostro, tricked Cardinal Louis de Rohan, primate of France, into standing as financial guarantor for a extraordinary diamond necklace, which he was led to believe he was procuring for Marie Antoinette. The cardinal, who was at odds with the queen, was persuaded that by serving as middle-man in the transaction, he could win Marie’s favor and, thereby, political preferment. Unfortunately for all concerned, the plot unraveled and led to a court case in which the cardinal was acquitted but the woman who had misled him convicted and punished. The real loser, however, was a person not a direct party to the affair–Marie Antoinette, for whom the imbroglio became an acute embarrassment, proving to an already disgruntled populace the extent of the extravagance and corruption within the royal court, and thereby contributing to the growth of the anti-monarchical feeling that eventually led to the toppling of Louis XVI and the establishment of the First Republic.

Theoretically this story could be fashioned into an enjoyable piece–something snide and biting along the lines of Stephen Frears’ delectably nasty “Dangerous Liaisons” (1988)–but neither Shyer nor Sweet seems to have the foggiest notion how to go about it. “The Affair of the Necklace” is stilted and musty, often beautiful to look at but dramatically inert; watching it is rather like strolling through an overstuffed museum exhibit in the company of a dry-as-dust, long-winded guide constantly chattering into your ear. It isn’t so much dramatized as laboriously recited through narration solemnly intoned by one of the chief characters (Breteuil, house minister of Versailles) from the perspective of many years later; the poor fellow is constantly interrupting the action to tell us who’s who, what’s happening and what the ramifications are, usually in turns of phrase that reek of unsuccessful attempts at sophisticated humor. Whenever he falls mercifully silent and gives way to conversation among the characters, we’re subjected to dialogue so florid and archly ridiculous that we immediate yearn for him to start up again. It’s a no-win situation for the audience.

It would help a bit, of course, if the script were played with any degree of conviction, but alas, that is not to be; most of the cast prove singularly inept at mouthing the lines of purple prose Sweet serves up for them–and, in fact, don’t even wear their period garb persuasively. The exceptions are Jonathan Pryce, who, as Rohan, adopts once again the pose of silkily sinister arrogance that he’s used before to good effect (and appears to enjoy flouncing about in his billowing cardinal’s robes) and Brian Cox, who brings a certain grave dignity to Breteuil. But everyone else is pretty much a disaster. As the scheming countess, Hilary Swank seems utterly at a loss; most of the time she stands around looking as though she’s just been hit in the head with a mallet and remains uncertain of where she might be. As her dishonest spouse-of-convenience, the very contemporary-seeming Adrien Brody is about as persuasive as John Turturro might be in eighteenth-century garb (which is to say not at all), while Simon Baker is a callow cipher as her business partner and lover. Joely Richardson resembles an out-of-place Vegas showgirl as Marie Antoinette. But the funniest performance is probably turned in by Christopher Walken as the duplicitous Cagliostro; his customarily odd intonations, along with the absurd pantaloons he’s forced to wear, make him a walking, talking implausibility.

The only way one can glean some entertainment from this elaborate misfire is by ignoring the plot and performances utterly and simply admiring the locations in France and the Czech Republic, beautifully captured by cinematographer Ashley Rowe, and the eye-catching sets and costumes provided by a small army of European craftsman. You might also enjoy trying to identify the various snippets of seventeenth and eighteenth-century music stitched together by David Newman in a pastiche of a background score. Apart from that, however, “The Affair of the Necklace” will prove an almost complete bore to anyone without an overwhelming fascination for gleaming chandeliers, powdered wigs, lush gardens and silk bustles. It reminds one of nothing more than a really bad history lecture–profusely illustrated, of course.

AMERICAN PIE 2

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The cinematic world survived “Porky’s II: The Next Day” in 1983, and it will doubtlessly outlast this almost virulently raunchy but curiously dull sequel to the 1999 gross-out smash. What makes the flick so boring is how closely it adheres to the formula of its predecessor. To be sure, the gang is now composed of soon-to-be-college-sophomores instead of graduating high school seniors, but for the most part their level of maturity hasn’t changed an iota; and the script by Adam Herz offers basically a series of transparent recyclings of gags from the first flick. Instead of Jim (Jason Biggs) indulging in a too-close relationship with the titular bakery good, for instance, he gets stuck engaging himself with super-glue instead of lubricant (a sequence that’s just a much cruder, overextended version of the zipper incident in “There’s Something About Mary”). Instead of an embarrassing sexual encounter being broadcast over the internet, one is sent out over CB radio (how is never explained). And so on. At one point a character remarks, during a spat between two of his buddies, “We went through all this last summer.” He’s off a by a year, but the sentiment seems entirely apt.

The big shift this time around is that our supposed heroes–Jim, Oz (Chris Klein), Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), Stifler (Seann William Scott) and Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas)–rent a beach house (on the shore of Lake Michigan!) for the summer to learn life’s lessons. The obnoxious jerk Stifler is interested in nothing but bagging babes; this time his equally nasty little brother (Eli Marienthal) turns up, too. Meanwhile Oz is devoted to absent girlfriend Heather (Mena Suvari) and reduced to trying to have always-interrupted phone sex with her; Kevin obsesses over getting together with his “friend” Vicky (Tara Reid); Finch dreams of linking anew with Stifler’s mother; and awkward Jim crams for a renewed chance with luscious foreign-exchange student Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth) by getting tips from the spacey but sexually blase flautist Michelle (Alyson Hannigan). Smoothly cynical Jessica (Natasha Lyonne) turns up once more, but has little to do but stand around, and so does geek-on-the-make Sherman (Chris Owen), who’s still nothing more than a tiresomely obvious copy of the Farmer Ted character Anthony Michael Hall played in “Sixteen Candles.” And last but certainly not least, Eugene Levy returns as Jim’s incurably supportive, unimaginably square dad.

All the resultant familiarity would be easier to swallow if there were any freshness or zest in its presentation, but there’s not. Director J.B. Rogers, the Farrelly brothers protégé who was responsible for the recent gross-out incest farce “Say It Isn’t So,” pummels everything across with all the finesse of the Frankenstein monster pounding away on a piano. Of course, he’s not helped either by the script or by his leading man. Herz has stuffed the screenplay with bits ripping off all sorts of earlier movies–from “The Graduate” to all the John Hughes high school epics; “American Pie 2” trashes the memory of innumerable better pictures. In addition, he inserts gags that send a spike into the already overburdened Raunch-O-Meter: a bit early on, in which Stifler gets urinated on profusely (he deserves far worse, but that’s another matter), is so unpleasant you just want to avert your eyes, and an elaborate set piece involving the boys’ spying on some purported lesbians is beyond the pale. (There are times that one wishes the fellows had opted for Camp Crystal Lake as their retreat; maybe Jason could have shown up and dispatched them in some appropriately grisly fashion.) In Biggs, moreover, Rogers has an anemic star; the problem is that the young man, who would perhaps be pleasant enough in other roles, isn’t a particularly adept physical comedian; pulling off the glue sequence already mentioned, or another moment of humiliation when Jim has to pose as a retarded trombonist at a band camp (how’s that for good taste?), requires lots of discipline and precision, but Biggs just scrambles around frantically in Jerry Lewis fashion, and the fact that he’s always semi-clothed or clad in tightly-fitting garb during these episodes makes it all the worse. On the evidence of these flicks, Biggs is the modern-day Bob Cummings or Steve Guttenberg, both boyishly pallid and blankly boring. Scott is all too convincing as the hormonally-driven dullard Stifler, but there’s far too much of him this time around. Most of the rest of the cast is sadly underused. That’s especially the case with the amiable Klein, who’s much less harried than he was in Rogers’ debut but pretty much recedes into the background instead, and Levy, an estimable farceur who steals the screen every time he appears (even in the opening scene, when he bursts in on his son while the boy is trying to have sex–you’ve seen virtually the whole thing in the trailers on TV); but he’s around far too infrequently.

It’s a rule of thumb that a second helping of a favorite desert isn’t very good for you, and even the most devoted fans of the original are likely to find this sequel entirely superfluous. Though it tries for sweetness toward the close, “American Pie 2” is so crass until then that it’s a lost cause. If you have any taste buds left after ninety minutes of crudity, the picture will prove a stale pastry that’s likelier to make you gag than to smack your lips in satisfaction. The first movie was no prize, but this one fits that appellation only in the booby variety.