The Full Monty (1997)

What's so funny about men taking their clothes off? Women taking their clothes off isn't funny, although recent movies on the subject (*Showgirls*, *Striptease*) have been laughably bad. Why should it be any different when the strippers are male?

It shouldn't, and that's really what makes *The Full Monty* such a delightful and winning movie. The men in *The Full Monty*, a ragtag group of unemployed steelworkers in Sheffield, England, are already stripped of their pride and dignity by life on the dole. Conceived as a plan to make quick cash, stripping unexpectedly becomes a means of empowerment and liberation for these blue collar blokes, a way to recover their manhood by, of all things, baring their manhood. They've got nothing to hide because they've got nothing to lose.

Led by Gaz (Robert Carlyle), who gets the idea when he sneaks into a Chippendales show, each of the men has his own desperate reasons for this most desperate measure. Gaz is about to lose custody of his son Nathan (William Snape), unless he can come up with child-support; Gerald (Tom Wilkinson), the lads' former supervisor, can't bear to tell his free-spending wife that he lost his job six months earlier, even when the repo men are knocking at the door. Lomper (Steve Huison) is depressed and suicidal, a lonely security guard watching an idle steel plant; Horse (Paul Barber) has a bad hip; Guy (Hugo Speer) is without means and without talent, although he is apparently spectacularly well-endowed; chubby Dave (Mark Addy) is impotent, racked with insecurity and feeling unlovable because of his ample love handles. Each man feels obsolete, emasculated and exposed -- with the comical logic of the desperate, they conclude that they, like the buff, well-oiled Chippendales, have what it takes to drive the employed women of Sheffield into a money-throwing frenzy.

One major source of comedy in *The Full Monty* is that the men are not traditional beefcake types (as they no doubt will be in the Hollywood remake of this movie). Pasty and flabby, they are absurdly bad dancers as well. Guy fancies himself another Donald O'Connor, but his footwork is more fanciful than fancy. Horse, a bit on the old side as exotic dancers go, can manage naught but the funky chicken these days, and as for the rest, the rhythm kings they are not. With young Nathan watching in horror, they attempt, with comical gravity, to put together their Hot Metal Revue, rehearsing to old disco tunes in the last place where they felt like real men: the abandoned steel mill where they were once employed. They have little to offer but their willingness to bare all, and there's some doubt in the ranks about the wisdom of that.

Written by Simon Beaufoy and directed by Peter Cattaneo, *The Full Monty* (Brit slang for butt-naked) is surprisingly heartfelt and sincere, a comedy tinged with real melancholy. The laughs are not really at the expense of these downtrodden blokes -- they're laughing themselves, after all, through the tears. But even while the g-string men are prancing about in ludicrous imitation of exotic dancers, this comic gem never loses sight of what brought them to this unlikely juncture -- the socioeconomic realities of modern-day England, which relegated them all to the scrap heap. Once the nuts and bolts of their working class town, now they're just the nuts, and rusty ones at that. In that context, their baring endeavor is a triumph over a failed economic system, unexpectedly liberating and, shall we say, uplifting.

The fine performances by Carlyle (best known as the psychotic Begbie in *Trainspotting*), Wilkinson, and Addy, in the three central roles, really reveal the not-so-quiet desperation of these working stiffs, and give *The Full Monty* its tragicomic edge. Despite the absurd circumstances in which they frequently find themselves, the characters in *The Full Monty* always ring true as more than the sum of their quirks, foibles and troubles. They bare their souls, and when the curtain finally goes up on their performance, it is an exhilarating moment of drama, comedy and relief as they bare something that, it turns out, is far less revealing.


Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

*Lawrence Of Arabia* was first released the year I was born, so I never saw it in its full Panavision glory. As an adolescent, I discovered this film, by then a late-night TV staple, and sat mesmerized, on countless occasions, watching it in all it's truncated splendor, in the wee hours of the morning. The sweeping desert vistas, the epic battles, Peter O'Toole's incredibly blue eyes -- no television could ever do these things justice, and yet this movie put a spell on me. I absolutely loved it, and was ready to throw off Levi's and turtlenecks for flowing white bedouin-wear.

My obsession with the enigmatic T.E. Lawrence began shortly thereafter, and lasted about as long as my obsession with the enigmatic Marilyn Monroe and the mysterious Kennedy assassination, and a variety of other things linked only by the fact that they were newsworthy back when I was in swaddling clothes.

The movie, on the other hand, remained a lifelong favorite. Restored and re-released in 1989, *Lawrence Of Arabia* is now playing in Manhattan at the Paris Theatre, with a beautiful new 70mm print. Watching it there last week, I was struck by how well this remarkable, passionate film has held up over the years.

An unusually literate film, *Lawrence Of Arabia* has a wonderfully witty script by Robert Bolt, and deals with complicated psychological and political issues succinctly but with depth. The dark complexity of Lawrence, the gnarly entanglements of politics, British imperialism and racism all add to the unapologetic ambiguity of this epic tale of an unapologetically ambiguous man.

The cinematography is magnificent, as is the general artistry of this David Lean film. Naturally, the stunning Arabian landscapes, oceanic in scale, help, but more than that, Lean used the landscape as a dramatic tool, influencing countless future films and filmmakers in the process. He loads the landscape with emotions so acute and grand that even the mountains of sand can barely contain them. The sheer, austere vastness of the settings and the brilliant intensity of the light in this movie lead to a sort of hypnosis -- and a psychological understanding of the appeal that the forsaken place had for Lawrence, a man accustomed to the damp greenery of Oxfordshire, one of that breed of Englishmen in love with the desert. The massive scale of *Lawrence Of Arabia* would be unimaginable today, when far less ambitious movies cost half the GNP of Saudi Arabia -- the sheer magnitude and ambition of such an artistic undertaking rivals the hubris of Lawrence himself.

O'Toole's complex portrayal of Lawrence is splendid. He reveals Lawrence as a man both in love with himself and horrified by his own impulses and megalomania, an arrogant masochist who tested himself in the crucible of the desert, and found himself lacking. While most epic adventures like this focus on battles and horses and glinting swords, *Lawrence Of Arabia* contains some of the most psychologically intimate and acute scenes -- however cryptic they were -- ever committed to celluloid. And there are, of course, glinting swords and horses and great battles, although these are presented with an almost pacifist ambiguity and horror of war.

The cast of *Lawrence Of Arabia* featured the cream of the crop at the time: Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Claude Rains, Jose Ferrar. Most surprising is Guinness' portrayal of Prince Faisal. Despite obviously blue eyes and black eyebrow dye, Guiness really, truly pulls it off and is utterly convincing as the Arab sheik. That's a bit of casting that would be a howler of political incorrectness today, but Guinness' performance is a reminder that great acting transcends race, while it also, perhaps inadvertantly, echoes the anti-tribalist theme of *Lawrence Of Arabia*.

Much of the complexity, the dark mystery, of *Lawrence Of Arabia* was no doubt lost on me as an adolescent. But one thing was not: *Lawrence Of Arabia* was the first adult movie that I loved, and it was the movie that made me love movies forever. Seeing it again, and on a big screen, was like seeing it for the very first time. Stirring, magnificent and gorgeous, it reminded me, after a summer full of assembly line movies, what movies should be, and what they can be. If you have any reason to be in New York City in the next two weeks, and even if you don't, do not miss *Lawrence Of Arabia*. I'm thinking of becoming obsessed all over again.


Excess Baggage (1997)

Alicia Silverstone, so engaging and energetic in her starmaking role in the ingenious *Clueless*, has a dud on her hands with *Excess Baggage*. Silverstone produced the film, in which she plays Emily Hope, a poor little rich girl who stages her own kidnapping in order to get some attention from her cold, unfeeling father, a shady business tycoon. Emily's plan backfires when a car thief steals her BMW, with the heiress still tied up in the trunk.

This is known as "meeting cute" for a movie couple, and there's little doubt that Emily and her unwitting kidnapper Vincent (Benicio Del Toro), the affably daffy car-thief-with-a-heart-of-gold, will be coupled by the end of *Excess Baggage*. This contrivance occurs because Emily, for reasons that are not entirely clear, refuses to leave Vincent despite his many efforts to ditch her, eventually winning him over with her pouty, bratty, clueless ways.

There is very little left to doubt in *Excess Baggage*, and few surprises in this by-the-book, couple-on-the-run, road trip romance. The biggest surprises in this lacklustre film are the performances, some surprisingly bad, some surprisingly good.

Silverstone's Emily is a generally unlikable, spoiled brat. Emily gets lots of close-ups of her big doe eyes and pouty lips, but little that makes sense is revealed about her character, except that everything she does is a desperate cry for attention. One minute she is a high kicking karate black belt, the next she's a whining, fearful little girl who smokes constantly, drinks even more, and suffers some pretty wild mood swings.

Del Toro (*The Usual Suspects*) easily walks away with the film. His oddly mannered performance, a sort of mumbly, Methody, monotonously comic James Dean riff, is utterly mesmerizing and hilarious. Del Toro's Vincent underreacts to everything (including ye olde groin kick), and wanders through *Excess Baggage* in an apparent state of constant bemusement that is the perfect counterpoint to Silverstone's erratic, overwrought performance.

Christopher Walken, as always, is another scene stealer, this time playing (no surprises here) Emily's menacing and mysterious "Uncle" Ray. Ray is Dad's Mr. Fixit, called in to take care of the inconvenient kidnapping situation so that the tycoon can attend to his important business meetings. Walken's gift is his ability to take seemingly innocuous statements and deliver them with such slippery venom that the very molecules in the air around him are malignant with dread, and he uses that talent to great effect in *Excess Baggage*. Walken and Del Toro, with their equally mannered and quirky portrayals, play off each other wonderfully, and supply all of the energy and interest present in this otherwise drab movie.

Uncle Ray somehow manages to track down Vincent and Emily just as Vincent runs afoul of a pair of venal henchmen out to recover a satchel full of money that was paid to the car thief for the stolen cars that were never delivered because Emily burned down the warehouse. This belabored plot twist provides *Excess Baggage* with some excess baggage of its own: Harry Connick, Jr. as Vincent's shifty pal Greg, and Nicholas Turturro as a fast talking thug. Another turn of the plot allows Emily's Dad (Australian actor Jack Thompson) to prove what a considerable cad he is -- even Uncle Ray is disgusted.

Directed by Marco Brambilla (*Demolition Man*), *Excess Baggage* is erratic and uneven, occasionally cute, occasionally funny, but mostly a baffling, inconsistent mess punctuated by spurts of violence and somewhat creepy romance. *Excess Baggage* would be a good video to watch with one's thumb on the fast-forward button; Savor the slippery, offbeat charms of Del Toro and Walken, and skip everything else.


She's So Lovely (1997)

Hard drinking, hard living Maureen totters around on high heels in search of her absentee husband Eddie. Eddie has been making himself scarce ever since Maureen got pregnant. This is obviously not a politically correct couple. They smoke, they fight, they hang around in dark, seedy bars, then stagger home to the fleabag hotel they call home. Maureen and Eddie are crazy in love, though, and quite possibly, just plain crazy.

*She's So Lovely* is a crazy movie. Penned some two decades ago by the late indie film pioneer John Cassavetes, and directed by his son Nick Cassavetes, *She's So Lovely* (originally titled *She's Delovely*) is filled with incomprehensible characters who do incomprehensible things without apology or explanation. Maureen (Robin Wright Penn) and Eddie (Sean Penn) don't even understand themselves -- all they know, all they need to know, is that they love each other truly and madly.

When Eddie attempts to make sense of his irrational life, he launches into strange ruminations that lead him into genuine madness. And when he discovers that, during one of his absences, Maureen has been roughed up by a neighbor, he really goes off the deep end, dragging *She's So Lovely* right along with him. Eddie spends ten years in a mental institution, only to discover, when he's released, that he's in an entirely different movie.

Maureen has abandoned her urban lowlife ways and settled into suburban housewife mode with her successful husband Joey (John Travolta), and three daughters (one of whom is Eddie's). Despite the veneer of apparent normalcy, Maureen makes no secret of the fact that she still loves Eddie with most of her heart. Joey, in his own way as volatile and insensible as Eddie, sets up a confrontation -- Maureen will have to choose between Joey and the kids and Eddie.

In any other movie, it would be pretty obvious what Maureen's choice must be. But She's So lovely isn't any other movie. Maureen expects nothing less than acceptance of her choices, however illogical or immoral they might seem. The right thing to do is what feels right to her, and that might change from moment to moment. The same goes for this movie, which asks only two things of an audience -- suspend judgment, and enjoy the ride. It's an amoral sentiment that, back when this movie was written, would have been more or less accepted. Nowadays, however, it seems outdated and quaint, especially in movies, where snap moral judgments are all but demanded by characters who are obviously right or wrong, good or bad, and have the soundtrack music to prove it. Certainly, few films would dare to demand that Maureen, Eddie and Joey -- hard cases who make their own choices harder -- be accepted for who they are. These are the kind of people who, in 1997, would end up on a daytime talk show -- "My wife still loves her crazy ex" -- seeking public approval of their alternative lifestyles. Perhaps the most likable thing about Maureen and Eddie is that they don't need anyone's approval -- they only need each other.

*She's So Lovely* doesn't quite exist in 1997, or any other year, anyway. It's a fable, an oddly charming little tale of unbounded, undying, uncritical love that has no concern for consequences. The main pleasure of *She's So Lovely* is its complete unpredictability -- you never know what anyone in this quirky movie is going to do or say at any time.

The performances are superb -- Penn's Eddie, bewildered and bedeviled, is almost tragic, a puppet controlled by his own heartstrings. Wright Penn's performance is raw, daring and reckless -- Maureen is as wrongheaded as she can be, having neither beauty nor brains, but she has an open heart. Travolta wrings a lot of hurt, anger and humor out of a small role, and Debi Mazar, Harry Dean Stanton and hKelsey Mulrooney (as Eddie's daughter Jeannie) are fine in supporting roles.

Fittingly, Gena Rowlands, who starred in many of John Cassavetes' films, and is mother to director Nick, has a small supporting role in this Cassavetes family film. A unique collaboration between father and son, written with a unique voice, and directed with style, h*She's So Lovely* is a witty, funny and unsentimental movie of romance without rhyme, reason or regret.