The Newton Boys (1998)

It's traditional in movies to save the biggest bang for the climax, and well it should be. Anti-climactic climaxes just aren't very satisfying, and spilling the beans too early doesn't leave an audience much to anticipate. Director Richard Linklater takes that tradition one step further in *The Newton Boys*, however. He saves the best part of the movie for the closing credits. There, in footage from a documentary film and a 1980 Johnny Carson show, two real-life Newton boys, octogenarians Joe and Willis, show their legendary right stuff, the outlaw spirit that made them the most successful bank robbers in US history.

It's just as well that Linklater, who penned the script with Claude Stanush and Clark Walker, saved the best for last, because those old fellas dull what little shine there is to their bland fictional counterparts in *The Newton Boys*.

What *The Newton Boys* has in spades is a good-looking cast, twinkling mightily for lack of anything better to do. Linklater, whose indie film credits include the charming *Before Sunrise* and the stultifyingly boring *SubUrbia*, specializes in subcultural immersion talkies, films with characters who hang around doing nothing much in particular other than gab all night long. With *The Newton Boys*, he's out of his element, venturing into the action-filled crime spree genre without contributing much in the way of action. There isn't even that much talk in *The Newton Boys*, an episodic tale that features too much whooping and boys-will-be-boys male bonding that always ends up with the fellas piling on top of each other.

The story goes like this: in the 1920s, the Newton brothers, Willis (Matthew McConaughey), Jess (Ethan Hawke), Joe (Skeet Ulrich) and Dock (Vincent D'Onofrio) team up with explosives expert Brentwood Glasscock (Dwight Yoakam) to rob a string of 80 banks from Texas to Toronto. They're all charming and cocky, and they never get caught, stealing cash and hearts everywhere they go. Latter day Robin Hoods, they steal from the banks (and bank insurers) and give to themselves. "It's just one thief a-stealin' from another," says the real-life Willis. the Newtons' final, fateful heist is the biggest train robbery in US history, which they almost pull off.

Willis' love interest is Louise Brown (Julianna Margulies). Glasscock's wife Avia (Chloe Webb) shows up from time to time as well, mostly to bat her eyes suggestively at the marital thrills of having nitroglycerine around.

Aside from a few inspired visual moments, and the aforementioned pulchritudinous cast, there just isn't a whole lot to *The Newton Boys*. They rob banks. They get drunk and whoop and holler and pick up girls. They drive a lot and wear big hats because they're from Texas, dagnabbit. the boys do have a few misadventures, thanks to Willis' dangerous tendency to be simultaneously spontaneous and greedy. McConaughey really gleams, flashing pearly white teeth, his eyes bright with passion and mischief. Likewise the rest of the cast, twinkly and charismatic as all get out, but it's all for naught because they might as well be posing for a portrait for all they have to do. Actually, the movie does feature several old-timey shots of the boys posing for portraits, scenes serving as little more than filler and unimaginative movie shorthand for a time period apparently corresponding to the early days of photography. It's unnecessary and redundant since the titles constantly remind, sometimes to the day, exactly when each incident transpires.

The characters are one-note, constant and unchanging from beginning to end, which makes for very little conflict, except the occasional tiff over Willis' reckless ways. They're all wholesome and fresh-faced, without a hint of darkness or rancor -- that's certainly a switch from typical movie outlaws, but it leaves the Newton gang looking blander than white bread. Everybody acts like their lives are fun and adventure-filled, but there is no evidence to support that in the movie, other than a twangy fiddle and banjo music score cued to enhance every heist and getaway. When the boys finally run afoul of the law, at last injecting some potential drama and conflict into the plot, it's every bit dull as the rest of the movie.

The old Newton boys were pretty darn witty and interesting in the clips at the end of the movie, and when a couple of 80 year old geezers are more lively than your movie, it's time to make a different movie. *The Newton Boys* is a case where art imitating life would have improved the art.


Primary Colors (1998)

After the media feeding frenzy over that certain White House intern, there's something oddly refreshing about *Primary Colors*, which, (wink wink) isn't *really* about our President. Based on the roman a clef by Joe Klein (aka Anonymous), which, in more innocent times (way back in 1996) was considered quite scandalous (before we learned *way* more than we ever wanted to know about the commander-in-chief's alleged poling of the populace) *Primary Colors* follows southern governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta) as he mounts a campaign for the presidential nomination amid rumors of sexual dalliances and draft dodging.

What's refreshing about director Mike Nichols' movie is the sense of unguardedness about the characters, something only achievable because *Primary Colors* is, for all its similarities to reality, a fiction. D.A. Pennebaker's brilliant documentary *The War Room* (1993) was more interesting, more insightful, a true behind the scenes, fly-on-the-wall perspective on political campaigning, but its real life stars could never be as guileless as their fictional counterparts -- fresh and full of ideals as they were, the folks running Clinton's first campaign were still pretty darn smart and wily. You never saw the future first lady throw keys at her husband's head, or swear like a sailor at the very sight of the man who couldn't help but wallow knee deep in the sins of the flesh (too many donuts, too many women).

Susan Stanton (Emma Thompson) embodies what *Primary Colors* is about, and it isn't scandal, or political spinning or unbridled ambition, but about compromise, and settling, about the ethical debate between moral absolutism and a utilitarian consequentialism. As unflattering as *Primary Colors* might be to the Clintons, it gives them (or their fictional counterparts, at least) some credit for trying. It's hard to imagine their Republican opponents engaging in ethical debates at all -- there's still a tiny touch of wide-eyed idealism about the movie and the characters, a recognition that moral choices are only hard for those who have morals to begin with.

Representing the lost cause of moral absolutism is fresh young Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), preppy grandson of a famous civil rights leader. He's shanghaied into the campaign, but he's a true believer, and, for a while at least, believes that Stanton is the real thing, a man of the people, for the people. Henry is mighty bland compared to the colorful characters in Stanton's inner circle: good ol' boy political strategist Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton) and Libby Holden (Kathy Bates), the "Dustbuster," a raging idealist who cleans up the dirt on her friend the candidate, but tries to keep her own hands clean while she does it.

Travolta has the Clinton thing down -- the voice, that throaty, choking-back-emotion tenor with a tremor, the slippery charm and charisma, the sincerity and cynicism, the gleam of purpose in those dewy eyes, the insatiable appetite for attention. It's a fine performance, irritating and ingratiating, promising and disappointing -- so like the real thing. Even Stanton's wife doesn't know when to believe him anymore, and, like everyone else, she's forced to cast her vote based on the man she hopes her husband can be, and throw up her hands when he falls far short of expectations.

Thompson's Susan is dynamic, ferocious, foul-mouthed, ambitious and frustrated at having hitched her wagon to such an inconstant star. Whether it's the American accent or the characterization, Susan speaks through clenched teeth, as if those teeth were the last barricade to be breached by the cynicism and political practicality that she's forced to spit out because she can't quite swallow it herself. Elaine May's witty script saves some of the best zingers for the embattled, cuckolded Susan -- when she lashes out, it's satisfying, and evident just who is the better, smarter half of this political, marital union.

The ethical crisis (following an assortment of bimbo crises) that sparks the soul-searching Henry to question his involvement in the campaign is almost an afterthought -- little more than a resolution to the character's narrative arc. The more interesting ethical debates are sprinkled throughout the movie as sneaky little occasions that turn out to be quite momentous from a personal, rather than political, perspective -- situations when ideals are compromised with seemingly little thought, as if the sheer momentum of the political campaign swept away all morals, negated all character and soul, dragging the candidate and his operatives so close to the goal that they hardly remember why they wanted to get there in the first place. But *Primary Colors* is never unremittingly cynical -- Stanton, despite his flaws, does remember: when he has a heart to heart with the counterman at a donut shop, when he gets swept away in a reverie of unforgotten purpose, when he regrets his own moral lapses but forges ahead, unapologetically, anyway.

In the end, *Primary Colors* is entertaining but insubstantial: it doesn't have much to say that the American people don't already know about politics, or our weirdly dysfunctional style of celebrity democracy, or moral compromise. The movie doesn't shatter any illusions that were still intact, nor does it lean especially hard on the pres, the press, or the people. That scandals buzz around Jack Stanton like flies says something either about the candidate or about the flies, but *Primary Colors* doesn't really want to commit to saying much about either. Like Robert Bennett said about that legal brief (you know the one), it's like cotton candy -- when you bite into it, there's nothing there.


The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)

Some movies get made because a writer or director has a personal vision, a story that wants to be told. Some movies get made for money. Then there are the movies in which neither art nor commerce are apparent motivators. They're made just because they can be, because the effects technology exists. With relatively new digital effects technology now widely available, we're in a period in which a lot of these latter movies are being made, with results that are generally as uninspiring as the movie is uninspired. *The Man In The Iron Mask* is just such a movie.

Writer-director Randall Wallace adds enough soap to drown the oft-told Alexandre Dumas pere tale in suds. Wallace postulates that the man in the mask is the twin brother of King Louis XIV (Leonardo DiCaprio), an unfortunate lad named Phillippe (also DiCaprio, of course) who had the misfortune to be born second. Whisked away at birth, Phillippe is imprisoned while still a tender, dewy young teen, locked in the horrible mask and forced to live in wretched conditions in an island prison. Naturally, the experience only strengthens his native nobility, while Louis, spoiled young king that he is, spends his days chasing tail, and being imperious and uncaring.

The movie is far more interested in Musketeers than the titular man in the mask, however, since inner torment and all that don't require a lot of swashbuckling and special effects. *The Man In The Iron Mask* plays like a literal sequel to The Three Musketeers, a sort of where-are-they-now followup that allows the old boys one last moment of glory -- and provides numerous opportunities, none of which are wasted, to say "One for all and all for one." D'Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne), now the top Musketeer, watches his king with disdain, but undying loyalty. The three musketeers, meanwhile, have all retired from the king's service. Aramis (Jeremy Irons) is a devout Jesuit priest; Porthos (Gerard Depardieu, broadly buffoonish) spends his days wenching (there is no shortage of pouty wenches in 1662 Paris, apparently) and lamenting his lost virility; Athos (John Malkovich) plays Mr Mom to Raoul (Peter Sarsgaard, executing a hilarious, pitch-perfect vocal impersonation of Malkovich), the fine young son who is about to join the Musketeers. This France abounds with different accents -- English, French, American (although the USA didn't exist for another 120 years) -- but consistency and authenticity are secondary concerns in *The Man In The Iron Mask*, as are character and drama. Secret passageways, gruesome tombs, flatulent Musketeers and hokey speeches take center stage, along with a supremely corny take on knee-jerk nobility and patriotism.

After establishing that Louis is a vain womanizer and a very bad king, the plot slowly lurches forward. The filthy peasants of Paris riot because they are starving and the king distributes rotten food. Louis orders them shot. Then Louis sends Raoul to the front so he can make time with his comely fiancee Christine (Judith Godreche), with whom Louis appears to be genuinely in love. Will the king's treachery never end? It's all too much for the disillusioned Musketeers, who plot to switch Louis with Phillippe, busting the poor boy out of prison with surprisingly little effort.

Phillippe emerges from the mask looking like wolf boy, but after a shave, a bath, and a bit of lip balm, he's a beautifully androgynous, milky-skinned young thing who, aside from the tenderness in his eyes, is a dead ringer for the king. DiCaprio is much more convincing as the wounded bird Phillippe than as bad boy Louis -- the imperious bed hopper seems more an imposter than the timid, confused prisoner. The cumbersome dialogue doesn't help -- Louis' come ons include such absurdities as "I hope you realize there is more of me to love... than a crown." Phillippe doesn't fare much better, forced to utter such inanities as "I wear the mask, it does not wear me."

DiCaprio really sinks his teeth into the role of king once Phillippe arrives in the palace, however, playing against himself with zest. Unfortunately, this, and all the other interesting parts of the movie are saved for the last ten minutes. Louis loses his kingly cool, lapsing into screaming hissy fits, his voice rising an octave as he shrieks at the pretender who, maddeningly, oozes nobility, royalty and loyalty with moist, puppy dog eyes which, although she won't admit it, makes the Queen Mother (Anne Parillaud) like Phillippe better. A few dozen more "One for alls," a bit of swordplay, a wowser of a soapy twist and a lot of straining for emotional effect, and everything is right in France again.

This is the umpteenth screen version of *The Man In The Iron Mask*, and the only justification for this inane adaptation is to take advantage of special effects that put the twin DiCaprios together onscreen. It's a perfectly executed effect, but not enough to justify the rest of this dreary, ridiculous movie.


The Big Lebowski (1998)

In the opening minutes of *The Big Lebowski*, a tumbleweed bounces through scrubgrass and greasewood on its way to the Pacific Ocean while The Sons of the Pioneers yodel a mournful "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." And that pretty much sums up *The Big Lebowski*, a drifting, staggering, windblown shaggy dog story. The shaggy dog at the center of this comic tale of crime and mistaken identity is The Dude (Jeff Bridges), a perpetually stoned bowling bum whose given name, Jeff Lebowski, is just one of his problems.

Jeff Lebowski is also the name of a certain millionaire (David Huddleston) whose trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reed) causes no end of trouble for the big Lebowski and the Dude. When thugs, employed by pornographer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzarra) come looking for the millionaire, they find the Dude instead, and soil his rug in an unspeakable manner. "The rug really tied the room together," laments the Dude. His bowling buddies, Walter (John Goodman), a volatile Vietnam vet and observant Jew who totes a gun to the bowling alley and refuses to roll on Shabbes, and Donny (Steve Buscemi), perpetually three steps behind in every conversation, convince the Dude that the millionaire Lebowski should compensate him for the loss of his finely aged rug. Before long, the Dude is acting as bag man for Lebowski when Bunny is kidnapped by German nihilists (Peter Stormare and Flea). The Dude loses the money in a poorly planned scam conceived by Walter, which leads to complications that include being menaced by nihilists, thugs, pornographers, cops, VW Beetles, and Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), artiste daughter of the big L.

All of which makes the Dude just a tiny bit uptight, despite his strict regimen of weed and White Russians. The secret to the Dude's limited success, however, is that nothing sticks to him, or sticks with him, for long -- he is literally a roll-with-the-punches kinda dude, drug-addled synapses sputtering, leisurely cruising from crisis to crisis, perpetually, intentionally, constitutionally off-kilter.

This being a Joel and Ethan Coen film, the Dude isn't the only off-kilter element. The whole movie is permeated by the Dude's shambling, drug-addled perspective, bouncing willy nilly like a tumbleweed that touches solid, middle America ground ever so briefly before vaulting back into the giddy heights of fantasy and criminal ineptitude. Thus, the Dude's hallucinations, prompted by frequent blows to the head: a Busby Berkeley-style dance routine, featuring a bowling Valkyrie and Kenny Rogers singing "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Is In)," and a flying carpet sequence with Dylan droning "A Man Like Me." Thus bowling arch-nemesis Jesus Quintana (John Turturro), a hair-netted, lavender-clad conquistador freak of the lanes. Thus The Stranger (Sam Elliott), cowboy and sometime narrator of the Dude's tale, postulating that by his very lackadaisical nature the Dude is some kind of new American hero, a gutterball paragon of stability, steady, grounded, and fixed in his laid back, spacey, intoxicated way, while everyone around him is impermanent, changeable, reactive, and all worked up about large sums of cash and the whole Byzantine kidnapping business. The bowling, booze-guzzling, long-haired Dude is Homer Simpson without a job, a wife and kids, a happily slow-witted ubermensch for whom success is the occasionally achievable combination of the right song, the right drink and three strikes in a row. And if the Dude is a lot like Homer, *The Big Lebowski* is a lot like a live action episode of *The Simpsons* (minus TV censorship), both visually and narratively, which is to say that there's a lot to like about this perversely familiar slice of Americana.

*The Big Lebowski* is hardly the masterpiece that the Coen's *Fargo* is. It is more a throwback to their earlier films, especially *Raising Arizona* -- broad, comically loopy, stylized tales of crime and stupidity, with no discernible center of gravity, filled with chatty oddballs, narrative nonsequitors and a freeform plot that spins around no particular axis. The pace of *The Big Lebowski* is laid back and leisurely, but unlike the Dude, the movie is also sharp and witty, purposefully aimless in its narrative wandering. The Coens look at American life like two giggling kids turning over rocks to see what creepy crawlies are underneath -- that they always find something strangely fascinating, familiar and darkly funny says something either about America or about their particular, peculiar outlook, or both. In *The Big Lebowski*, the Coens turn over some rocks, then perform the film equivalent of juggling bowling balls: they manage to keep a lot of dense balls in the air most of the time, and every now and then, they throw in a hatchet just to keeps things lively.


The Wedding Singer (1998)

Ah, the wedding. Is there any more fertile comedic ground? Momuments to unrestrained emotion and poor taste, awash in tacky music, adorned in frou frou fashion, family conflict laid bare and lubricated with booze, and all displayed, shamelessly, in public -- that is the wedding in movies, as in life.

So what could be funnier than the life of a wedding singer? Professional cheesiness, emotional ups and downs, career crisis and bad music against a backdrop of multiple weddings suggests surefire laughs. Throw in a rappin' granny, a Madonna wannabe, a Don Johnson devotee, a Michael Jackson acolyte and a jukebox full of nostalgic 80s hits (anybody remember "Pass the Dutchie"?) and you've got *The Wedding Singer*, an episodic, hit and miss potpourri of gags squeezed into a romantic comedy, set in those heady, lost-innocence, mid-Reagan-era days of 1985.

Robbie Hart (Adam Sandler) is the titular wedding singer, an all-around nice guy who not only sings and schmoozes, but smooths over family discord, shepherds drunks to the dumpster, provides newlywed counseling, and comforts co-workers all without wrinkling his shiny pink lame [MIK - accent on the e] tux. In his spare time, Robbie gives singing lessons to cute little old ladies who pay him in meatballs. Robbie's life is just dandy, until he is left at the altar by his fashion-victim fiancee Linda (Angela Featherstone), who decides that she doesn't want to be the wife of a mere wedding singer. Robbie falls apart. He mopes. He listens to The Cure (a sure sign of depression) and decides he hates weddings. Meanwhile, his pal Julia (Drew Barrymore), a perpetually chipper naif, finally gets her smarmy fiance Glen (Matthew Glave) to set a wedding date, but because the cad is busy womanizing, he doesn't have time to help her plan the wedding. So Julia enlists Robbie's help, and being a big brotherly sort, he agrees despite his misery, which inevitably leads to Robbie and Julia falling in love.

The plot is loaded with contrivances, conveniences and cliches (not to mention anachronisms), all designed to push Robbie and Julia together, pull them apart, push them together again, and so on. It's a mechanical, paper-thin, oh-so-sweet-and-innocent romance, and not a minute of it is believable or surprising, while the dialogue is even clunkier than the plot, serving primarily to drag the story along between musical set pieces that are too few and far between.

The real drive behind *The Wedding Singer* is providing narrative contexts for 80s alterna-pop songs, and given that MTV already existed in the 80s, that makes the movie something of a redundancy. What should have driven *The Wedding Singer* is Sandler singing -- he's hilarious every time he digs into 80s gold with the unabashed glee of a karaoke addict, and his own vicious paean to lovesick misery, "Somebody Kill Me," (penned by Sandler) is a hoot. Only in those all too infrequent moments does Sandler come alive in the role -- there's a snarly, goofy edge to the singer that is always just under the surface, even when he's crooning a treacly love ditty. That gleam of mischief is a welcome relief from the sweet, hangdog puppy love innocence of Robbie Hart, a character even Sandler doesn't seem to get.

Barrymore's Julia doesn't have any edge at all. She's all puppy dog, and never shows any teeth, even when Glen is kicking her around. The rest of the characters in *The Wedding Singer* are one-gag wonders: Julia's sister Holly (Christine Taylor) is a Material Girl groupie, Glen is all *Miami Vice*, right down to the Delorean and sockless loafers. Robbie's backup singer (Alexis Arquette) is a dead ringer for Boy George, and knows only one song ("Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?"), which doesn't go over well at weddings. There are movie-stealing cameos by Billy Idol, Jon Lovitz and, especially, Steve Buscemi in *The Wedding Singer* -- performances that are devilishly funny, a little bit mean, and a gratifying, sour counterpoint to the idealized, sentimental love story.

Come to think of it, *The Wedding Singer* is a lot like a wedding: everybody suffers the pinching shoes, pastel dresses, lousy food and the saccharine romance, all for the possibility that Uncle Leo will get shellacked and broadcast a few juicy family secrets before passing out in the champagne punch. It's those fleeting Uncle Leo moments, noisily ripping through the trifle and treacle like a chainsaw, that make *The Wedding Singer* worthwhile.