Category Archives: Archived Movies

BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE

A feel-good film about the aftermath of the war in Bosnia might
seem an impossible task, but that’s roughly what novice writer-
director Jasmin Dizdar has attempted in her feature debut.
Actually “Beautiful People” is a complex, multi-layered black
comedy-drama which, through a variety of intercutting narratives,
portrays the spillover of Balkan ethnic hatreds into the
London of 1993 by dramatizing the experiences of immigrants
trying, after escaping the horrors of their native land, to
become a part of England’s broadly multicultural population
mix. In the process the Bosnians must learn to suppress the
antagonisms which have driven their lives for so long, while
the British with whom they come into contact find themselves
changed by the experience. By the end, although undercurrents
of the old pains remain, the process of assimilation has taken
hold, and the future looks promising, if imperfect; as one
character observes rather too obviously, if one can find even
brief moments of joy amidst the catastrophe, life can be
beautiful.

One has to admire the ambition of Diznar’s concept, which
contains elements of broad farce (especially in the sequences
involving a Serb and a Croat who batter one another into a
hospital ward, where they’re housed with a Welsh terrorist who’s
exploded a bomb in his own face–a reminder that ethnic strife
is evident everywhere), drawing-room comedy (in the portrayal
of the home life of a British MP whose daughter becomes
romantically attached to a Yugoslavian refugee), whimsically
sentimental humor (in a narrative about a young hooligan who,
mistakenly transported into the Balkan war zone, is transformed
by the experience and becomes a hero to his middle-class
parents), domestic drama (in the story of a doctor whose wife
has just left them and who gives shelter to a newly-arrived
Bosnian couple) and political denunciation of western failure
to stop the conflict (through an episode regarding a BBC
journalist wounded in the Balkan fighting who is tormented by
what he’d seen there). The segments are diverse in terms of
both narrative and tone, but they’re all shot through with
streaks of mordant humor and moments of pungent pain that give
them considerable, if sporadic, power.

Still, it must be admitted that, for all the virtues of its
concept, its execution is often flawed. For one thing, there
are simply too many characters to allow for them to be
presented in anything but the most cursory, perfunctory fashion;
over the course of the first hour, a viewer might wish for a
scorecard to consult about who’s who, and even after the
identification becomes less difficult, most of the figures
continue to be portrayed so sketchily that they seem like
pieces on a cinematic chessboard rather than full, vibrant
human beings. Nor are all the narratives of equal interest;
that concerning the young layabout Griffin (Danny Nussbaum)
whose accidental trip to Bosnia nullifies his own prejudices
and promises to change his life is probably the most
immediately appealing (and surely the funniest).

But even in that strand of the plot, the speed and ease in the
transformation of the characters come across as not merely
implausible but somehow troubling. In the final analysis
Diznar’s picture seems to underplay the lasting impact that
the horrors of Bosnia must necessarily have on its victims;
the fact that the BBC journalist is apparently cured of what
one doctor calls the “Bosnia syndrome” of identifying with the
people involved in the conflict by the simple expedient of
hypnotism is characteristic here. And the mostly generous (if
sometimes grudging) acceptance by the English of the Yugoslav
immigrants appears too simple as well; in this connection the
abrupt and sentimental abandonment by two of Griffin’s pals of
their ugly xenophobia toward the picture’s close, while
eliciting smiles of contentment from the audience, is forced
and dramatically false.

“Beautiful People” is thus a film of brilliant isolated
moments, but its segmented approach ultimately dilutes its
impact, and the hopefulness of its final message seems, in
view of its subject, oddly self-congratulatory.

WONDER BOYS

It’s been a good year for dark comedy in American movies.
Curtis Hanson’s followup to “L.A. Confidential” may not be as
coolly observant as “American Beauty” or as goofily off-the-
wall as “Being John Malkovich,” but its oddball mixture of
sharp satire and shaggy-dog absurdity puts it in the same
class as those two remarkable films.

Blessed with a marvelously literate script by Steve Kloves
(based on a book by the talented Michael Chabon), the story
centers on Grady Tripp, a scruffy creative writing teacher at
a Pittsburgh university who’s suffering from a peculiar kind
of writing disorder–he’s simply unable to finish his second
novel, which is up to page 2611. During a difficult weekend
when his school is hosting a writing colloquium, Tripp is
forced to deal with several problems. His wife has left him,
and his mistress–the chancellor of the university (Frances
McDormand) who happens to be married to the chairman of his
department (Richard Thomas)–informs him she’s pregnant. At
the same time, Tripp must deal with his anxious agent (Robert
Downey, Jr.) and two of his students–morose but incredibly
productive James Leer (Tobey Maguire) and lovely, sympathetic
Hannah (Katie Holmes), as well as a visiting writer who’s a
popular success (Rip Torn) and a strange fellow who swears
that Grady is driving his car (Richard Knox).

The preceding precis touches on only the major figures in the
convoluted plot–there’s a tangent involving Marilyn Monroe and
another concerning a blind dog, too–but suffice it to say that
the central relationship is between Tripp, an aging, hippie-
like adolescent seeking to straighten out his life by making
choices (the metaphor of his unfinished book), and Leer, the
new “wonder boy” on the block, who both teaches and is taught.
The mechanics of the plot are of the “frustration humor”
variety–everything seems to go wrong, and disaster piles on
disaster–but though the formula may be pretty old, it’s
handled with such wit, quirkiness and invention that it works
beautifully. And undergirding it all is a basic sense of
reality that gives emotional resonance to the farcical
elements.

The cast is superb. As Tripp, Michael Douglas, looking hugely
disheveled, does his best work in years; playing a real
character after so many pictures in which he’s glided by on an
air of silken yuppiness, he proves that he’s still a true
actor. Maguire, who was so faceless in “The Cider House Rules”
and “Ride With the Devil,” delivers a solid portrait of grim,
repressed youth. McDormand is a no-nonsense foil for Douglas,
and Downey seems to be having a ball as the drugged-up agent
(tyoecasting, indeed). The supporting cast makes its points
without over-exaggeration, with Knox getting big laughs as a
Little Richard wannabe.

It’s still early in the year, but it’s safe to say that the
odd magic that Hanson has worked in “Wonder Boys” will be
remembered come awards time in 2001. It’s a film that keeps
the audience pleasurably off-balance throughout, peopled by
characters whose eccentricities–wonder of wonders–provide
amusement rather than irritation. Though most of its humor is
dark, it will leave you lightheaded and giddy, wanting even
more.