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Reconsidering Character

    PRIMARY COLORS

    PRIMARY COLORS (A-3, R): This is the film version of Joe Klein's inside-but-fictionalized account of a presidential primary campaign very much like 1992. Recall that Bill Clinton emerged from a small state and overcame an accumulation of normally fatal publicity disasters (charges of infidelities, draft dodging) to win the Democratic nomination and wrest the White House from George Bush.

    John Travolta is Clinton-like Jack Stanton, and Emma Thompson is his very tough and touching wife, Susan, who is, perhaps, based on Hillary. Dimly disguised takeoffs on real Clinton staff people are Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, Paul Guilfoyle and Maura Tierney, with Larry Hagman as a competing candidate of integrity who has potentially deadly ghosts in his past.

    The advantages of this not-entirely-fiction genre are numerous: You can portray events and people as you prefer, without the context or even the basic factual requirements of journalism. If you don't know who, what or why, you just make it up. But Klein's novel won praise, not just for entertaining but for coming closer to the complex human realities than you can in a family newspaper.

    In the movie, created by the canny veteran director-writer team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, we're invited to reconsider the meaning and relevance of "character" in political democracy. The film covers the early primary roller-coaster ride and suggests the areas of sleaze, plus some still-credible reasons for the Stanton success, despite his personal flaws. It sets up a familiar ethical question: Is it O.K. to fight dirty to get elected?

    The structure is shrewd and effective. A smart young black political pro (Brit actor Adrian Lester) joins Stanton's campaign because he's tired of winning only moral victories.

    The crunch dilemma is improbably presented by Libby (Kathy Bates), a blunt, profane and rousingly effective political investigator. Will Jack and Susan leak the past sins of Hagman's character to the press? Or will they stick to the ideals of their youth, when they were all trying to stop the war and get Nixon out of the White House? In short, do politicians have to compromise—become the enemy—to win?

    Nearly every Hollywood movie has sided with the pure of heart. Ends do not justify means. Colors (and this really has nothing to do with Stanton/Clinton) comes down more on the pragmatic side, but it shows the argument is infinitely complicated.

    The film has some terrific moments: the off-on, affection-anger relationship between Jack and Susan; the scene where the staff, trying to ask Susan about how to handle womanizing questions, gets lost in a bear-in-the-woods metaphor. Jack's positives and negatives are not so much balanced as presented as a puzzle with many solutions. It's hard to dislike this man, but those who want to will easily find a way. Adult language and situations; melodrama mixes with truth, comedy with insight; O.K. for mature viewers.



    TWILIGHT


    Photo © 1998 Paramount by Lorey Sebastian

    Twilight, starring film veterans Paul Newman (left) and James Garner, is a suspenseful drama about blackmail and murder.

    TWILIGHT (A-3, R): Times have changed radically in movies since Paul Newman began making them. In Twilight, for example, a running joke is whether Newman's Harry Ross is seriously damaged by a stray shot in his private parts.

    But mostly, this movie has the polish and elegance of old-time Hollywood. It almost never crosses your mind that Newman, graceful as ever, is 73. His voice is lower and raspier, but the twinkle in the blue eyes is still Butch Cassidy. The roots of fellow cast members (Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon, James Garner, Stockard Channing) are nearly as deep.

    In this screenplay by reliable director Robert Benton (Nobody's Fool, Places in the Heart), Newman's Ross is a longtime friend of a glamorous movie-star couple (Hackman, Sarandon) who are blackmail targets in connection with an old unsolved movieland mystery. The haunting background music is by Elmer Bernstein.

    Despite the cliches, these stylish vintage movie artists keep us beguiled. This film genre has persisted because it's a deeply Californian and American archetype: the vague sense of corruption and decay in Paradise. There's ultimate shabbiness beneath the effortlessness and the beautiful facade. We're encouraged to ponder the flawed humanity of the stars, who hypnotize us into loving them and envying how they live. Artful, wise genre movie; satisfactory for adults.


    THE BIG LEBOWSKI

    THE BIG LEBOWSKI (O, R) begins with characters who are morally absurd in almost all respects. Like many movies by Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo, Raising Arizona), this comedy involves cartoonish losers in scary situations beyond their control. The heroes are Los Angeles bowling pals who are comic polar archetypes of the boomer generation.

    The Dude (hairy, laidback Jeff Bridges) is an unemployed aging hippie with a limited vocabulary. He smokes pot and listens to whale music. He tends to have bad luck: His Venice pad is trashed by thugs who think he's some other Lebowski.

    His friend Walter (John Goodman) is a slightly off-track Vietnam vet who aims a gun at a guy who won't admit he crossed the foul line while bowling a spare. Despite being lovable and loyal, he loses his temper easily.

    These characters—their wild mix of values, how they talk, even how they dream—are the film. They're the innocents enmeshed in the cliches of a plot. Their troubles escalate beyond reason, not to mention patience and good taste.

    The Dude may work as satire but not as a hero, even in farce. The major flaw of the Coens is that their wit often undercuts both story and sense. It's not a family movie, but adult Coen fans will find the Dude and Walter belong in their gallery of wacko eccentrics. Problem language, drug content, violence, sex situations; not especially recommended.


    THE WEDDING SINGER

    THE WEDDING SINGER (A-3, PG-13) is a romantic comedy with likable heroes. It's also a reasonably witty send-up of the 1980's. You get nostalgia and culture critique along with a fun romance.

    Robbie, the singer, is a gentle do-gooder of moderate talent who not only provides the songs at wedding receptions but also goes out of his way to make the rough paths smooth. The job is an elegant metaphor for benevolence. Robbie is played with some charm by Adam Sandler, the normally obnoxious, bathroom-obsessed Saturday Night Live comic.

    Robbie tries to help out a waitress friend, Julia (Drew Barrymore), who's planning an unlikely wedding to a boorish and womanizing junk-bond broker. The obstacles arranged by writer Tim Herlihy and director Frank Coraci are fun as well as easy to jump.

    Yet it's the values you most admire in this unusual Gen-X comedy. Robbie's best friend (Allen Covert) puts life's essence about as well as it's been done in any elite work of literature. Above average romantic nostalgia; some problem language and sexual innuendo.


    JUST WHEN

    JUST WHEN you were discouraged and depressed about TV on a recent Saturday because an old Eddie Murphy flick showed up on ABC instead of Nothing Sacred, you zapped around to C-SPAN and discovered former Beirut hostage Terry Anderson talking about forgiveness.

    Then it's Sister Helen Prejean, on the same channel, discussing the advances toward the gospel spirit of forgiveness and Pope John Paul II's action to change the new Catechism of the Catholic Church so there is no shelter for death-penalty advocates in Catholic teaching.

    Both speakers are easygoing, articulate, interesting: The Tube isn't always a wasteland, even on Saturday night.


    REST IN PEACE

    REST IN PEACE: Fred Friendly died on March 3 at age 82. He became a legend producing documentaries (Harvest of Shame) in the 1950's Golden Age with Ed Murrow. Friendly remained a gadfly and conscience to the medium long into his retirement. Many principled and talented people follow his inspiration and prosper. TV needs them.


    UGANDA

    UGANDA: I was watching 60 Minutes and Christianne Amanpour's report on Uganda. For 10 years a mad rebel who wants to turn the country into a religious state based on the Ten Commandments has been kidnapping children and using them as soldiers in a campaign of terror and massacre against the peasants and people in his way.

    Amanpour, bringing this news to the vast CBS audience, does God's work. (I'm haunted by the face of a young French nun whose schoolchildren were brutalized and violated.) In this drama of real life, we must provide the happy endings.


    FAMILY WEEKEND MOVIES

    FAMILY WEEKEND MOVIES will be especially strong in May on the Odyssey cable channel on Friday evenings. Among the titles are: The Little Princess (May 1), based on the poignant orphan classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (May 8), based on C. S. Lewis's Narnia children's tale; My Bodyguard (May 22), the excellent 1980 movie (with Adam Baldwin and Matt Dillon) about a bullied Chicago schoolkid who hires a withdrawn youth to protect him; and George C. Scott's Oliver Twist (May 29). Recommended for preadolescents and parents.


    LATELINE

    LATELINE (NBC, Tuesdays) is the most recent variation on the TV-news sitcom hallowed by the Mary Tyler Moore gang. It's much less sex-obsessed than most new series (so far, I caution). This is comic/political commentator Al Franken's spoof of TV news, not really ABC's ponderous Nightline. It usually plugs in celebrity guests (James Lovell and Joan Lunden on recent episodes) and manipulates familiar stereotypes (egotistic male anchor, eager female producer) brightly.

    Coproducer and writer Franken (another Saturday Night Live alum) plays the klutzy, Everyman correspondent sent out on all the dirty jobs. He's the unique element on the show and probably his own best weapon. The series works on inside jokes for the deeply backgrounded as well as broad humor for the uninitiated rest of us.



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