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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 25, 2006

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Lake House, Click, New Flavor, Lap Desk, Sean Connery

I saw two movies this past week.

The Lake House is a romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves as the lovers and Christopher Plummer in a superb performance as Reeves's domineering father.

Yes, I know. Chick flick. But what if I tell you it's a time travel chick flick? That makes it sort of like sci-fi, right?

Well, yes. But not like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Being John Malkovich were sci-fi. No, it's sci-fi the way that Somewhere in Time and Kate and Leopold were sci-fi. Meaning more romance than any serious attempt at dealing with time travel paradoxes.

Awwww, who cares. It's a terrific love story about a woman who, as she departs from a rented lake house that she has loved, leaves a letter for the next tenant in the mailbox.

But the letter is found by the owner of the lake house ... two years to the day before she put it there. So when he writes back, and she (semi-credibly) happens to find it, they soon realize that their lives are ticking away exactly two years apart, connected by the mailbox.

The writer of this script (David Auburn) or the two writers of the original South Korean film Siworae (or, to use its international title, Il Mare) took some pains to show the characters acting intelligently, making real attempts to connect in their shared present.

The attempts fail for excellent reasons which, I'm afraid, are obvious to the audience and should be at least conceived of by the characters. The plot depends rather too much on Sandra Bullock's character being unable to recognize somebody she once kissed ... but hey, it could happen. Maybe.

Look, if it's logic you want, study philosophy or computer programming. This is a love story full of noble romantic tragedy. We like everybody. Nobody sleeps together -- we never have to see two naked movie star bodies playing bouncy-bouncy, so we can concentrate on characters and relationships, and so I loved this movie.

So did my wife. She loved it enough to cry. Heck, she loved it enough to stay awake on an evening when she was so exhausted she couldn't even eat. (I have never been that exhausted.)

Reeves and Bullock are wonderful in this kind of role. They're both good-looking, but not classically beautiful. They feel like real people you might actually meet somewhere and talk to. This effect is so powerful, even in their dumbest films, that you still like the actor even if you start wishing the movie would spring a leak and flush you out of the theater.

In fact, I almost started calling them Keanu and Sandra, as if I knew them personally. I don't. (I'm a writer. Writers are not encouraged to meet actors. It makes the writers feel ugly and the actors feel stupid, thereby making everybody miserable. Plus, if the actors and writers actually talked to each other regularly, people might notice how unnecessary most directors are, since most film performances come entirely from the actors' interactions with the writers' words.)

Romantic comedies are just about the hardest thing to do effectively in film. The balances have to be so carefully drawn -- between realism and fantasy,between attractiveness and comfortableness, between cleverness and likeability -- that few writers and few actors can bring it off.

The Lake House does not make the A list with films like Nora Ephron's You've Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle. But keep in mind that Ephron also wrote the miserable Michael and the disappointing Bewitched. Nobody gets it right all the time.

Instead, it's solidly on the A-minus list with Somewhere in Time and Sweet Home Alabama and others that are very good but still lack a certain je ne sais quois. Myself, I'd be thrilled to produce a B-plus romantic comedy.

Which brings me to the other film I saw this week. Adam Sandler's Click is not really a romantic comedy, though the romance element is strong. It's a change-your-life fantasy that owes more to It's a Wonderful Life and Bruce Almighty than to Affair to Remember and Shop Around the Corner.

The trouble is that Adam Sandler was the 800-pound gorilla on this project, which means that there was no grownup present to say, Sure, that's funny, guys, but it completely wrecks the delicate, difficult thing we're trying to create here.

The result is a comedy that made me laugh and, at the end, made me cry -- and about two dozen times in the middle made me a little angry or a little sad because of gags that, for me at least, wrecked the film.

Let me give you a warning right now: Children don't belong at this movie. Period. And by children, I mean any human young enough to be forming his or her ideas about sex. Because this movie goes for pointless dirty jokes over and over again. I was stunned at the number of people who brought seven-year-olds to this movie -- old enough to get the filthy jokes but too young to know how to put them in perspective.

Director Frank Coraci has worked with Sandler before, on Wedding Singer and The Waterboy. But Sandler is at his best when he works with a director who makes some effort to reign in his excesses (like James Brooks in Spanglish).

For the first two-thirds of the movie I was annoyed that the key device -- a "universal remote control" that controls the people around him -- is so idiotically misused in the storyline.

I mean, this guy has the power to stop time. Why doesn't he use that pause power to go take a nap, get a project done, and then be fresh and ready to spend quality time with his family? Anybody with half a brain (admittedly not the sort of character Sandler usually plays, but ...) would figure this out.

Instead, Sandler's character pushes the fast forward button, which means that his body is on autopilot, living through all the boring stuff without actually paying attention, and he only shows up for the "good stuff." The result is that he barely lives his own life.

By the end, you realize that this is intimately connected with the point the writers (who also wrote the much-better-and-nearly-identically-structured Bruce Almighty) are trying to make. But it's no excuse to say "We made our character act like a blithering idiot even though he's supposed to be a smart guy, solely because our 'theme' required it."

The rule for writers is: Toss the theme and let the characters be true to themselves.

But at least they were internally consistent, and in the end, I found myself moved by the story despite the dumbness and bad taste that pervaded the film from beginning to end.

Bad taste -- why should that surprise anyone going to an Adam Sandler film?

Because it's obvious -- with Mr. Deeds, 50 First Dates, Spanglish, and Click -- that Sandler desperately wants to be Jimmy Stewart and could be, if only he had the courage to let go of the cheap, nasty jokes that were the mainstay of his early career and take the leap into classy folksiness. Sure, the audience laughs less, but we love and trust more.

Tom Hanks flirted with dumb tasteless comedy in those early years -- Bosom Buddies, Bachelor Party -- but he quickly made the leap that Sandler won't make. And, unlike Hanks in those early years, Sandler has the power to do it. On the sets of most of his films, what he says goes.

All it takes is for him to say to his buddies, "That's funny -- here in this room. But I don't make movies like that any more, guys. Because if I'm still making those films when I'm fifty, I won't be funny anymore, I'll just be sad. And I'll have precious little to look back on with pride. My movies won't last."

Look at Tom Hanks's filmography. He has some quirky, rather arty comedies like Joe vs. the Volcano and downright embarrassments like Turner and Hooch and The Money Pit; but he also has films that will last forever and can be watched over and over again, like Sleepless and You've Got Mail, Cast Away and Big, A League of Their Own and Forrest Gump, Philadelphia and Private Ryan and the one film he completely controlled, the beautiful gem That Thing You Do.

It's too facile to say that Adam Sandler is not capable of making any of those films. It's true that Hanks was an actor from the start, and Sandler has only gradually learned how to act. But when we watched Bosom Buddies and Bachelor Party there's no way anybody could claim they saw the seeds of Cast Away and You've Got Mail.

It was a conscious choice Hanks made, to shun the cheap material and go for the classy. Sandler could make the same choice. Sandler doesn't have the manic energy to spend his career doing Jim Carrey or Robin Williams. From the films he's doing now we can see how he hungers to make movies that have power and truth amid the comedy.

So I hope that soon, while he's still young enough, he shuts the door on his childish humor and turns himself to the grownup comedies he already yearns to do.

Meanwhile, I can only say that if you have any sense of shame or responsibility, you won't bring children under sixteen to this movie, regardless of its rating. And if you go to see it yourself, be prepared to sigh and wince and wearily say to yourself, "Another dog-humping-the-stuffed-duck joke?"

Just remember that the writers got so much mileage out of the dog that peed on the furniture in Bruce Almighty that they thought they had to have a running gag about an animal, and couldn't tell the difference in tastelessness between urinating and mating.

Everybody tries to do whatever they think it was the worked the last time they had a success. But doing the same thing that worked in movie A almost never works as well (or at all) in movie B.

Aw, what does it matter what I say. Click made $40 million on its opening weekend, and will certainly make back its $70 million budget. Whereas Lake House's opening weekend of less than $14 million against a budget of $40 million is far less promising. It won't earn out till it's on video.

We the public get more of whatever we paid for last time.

*

New Haagen-Dazs flavor alert: Mayan Chocolate.

It looks like chocolate with a ribbon of chocolate syrup running through it.

But it's more than that. The chocolate tastes like the rich chocolates that put the percentage of purity on the package. But there's also a hint of cinnamon in it that, for a cinnamon lover like me, is just enough to give it an exotic edge, without taking over.

And that ribbon of fudge is thick and lustrous in your mouth. It's been a long time since I enjoyed chocolate this strong, but I enjoyed it the way I enjoy what Dulce de Leche does for caramel.

Meanwhile, friends tell me the new Banana Split flavor is excellent, but only if you like almond extract embedded with cherry flavor. I like banana splits -- but always order them without nuts or a cherry. Haagen Dazs's version of banana split is simply too complete for my taste.

*

I had deadlines to meet last week, so while my wife, daughter, and niece were walking through 90-degree heat from monument to monument in DC this week, I sat in an air-conditioned car typing on my new lap desk.

Lightweight and just the right size to use in any passenger seat in our car, the padded base was airy and comfortable. It kept the heat of my laptop computer far from my body, and raised the keyboard and mouse to a comfortable, more usable height. Which is what lap desks are supposed to do.

I don't imagine that it would be convenient to carry it around airports. This lap desk is only convenient to use in cars or places you can get to by car.

I have plans to do a good deal of writing on a hammock in our back yard this summer, using the lap desk and a lot of mosquito repellent to make it comfortable.

My lap desk was obtained from Flax Art and Design -- FlaxArt.com, one of our favorite shopping websites. Created by a chain of stores in the San Francisco Bay Area, it has an eclectic offering that ranges from whimsical to amusing to appalling -- which means it's fun to browse there even when you don't buy.

*

Last week we happened to catch the American Film Institute's tribute to Sean Connery on the USA Network.

Because in his middle age Connery became a beloved icon, we tend to view his career through rose-colored glasses. It's worth remembering that at the beginning, his career consisted mostly of light, empty acting.

Yes, I include the Bond films. It's hard to be suave (look how many try to do it and fail), and the succeeding Bonds all demonstrated just how hard it is to do it brilliantly. But if Connery had kept on in that vein, his career would have been rather a joke -- especially as he got too old to play Bond and yet kept on trying to play him.

Unlike, say, Harrison Ford and Sylvester Stallone, who both seem to think that they have nothing to offer when they're too old to play their stock characters (which, of course, they already are), Connery knew when to stop playing Bond or characters like Bond.

The retrospective showed that he had that wisdom -- and the talent to back it up -- fairly early in his career, when he played a soldier-convict in a black-and-white movie called The Hill. In the midst of his fame, born of Darby O'Gill and the Little People and magnified a thousand times by the first Bond movies, he took an acting job and, judging from the clips, did it well.

It's rather like the shock we felt when Richard Gere took on An Officer and a Gentleman. Oh, he can do that?

So when his most magnificent roles came along -- Robin in Robin and Marian and Daniel Dravot in The Man Who Would Be King -- he was ready for them. He could hold his own on a screen with Audrey Hepburn or Michael Caine.

He also took the lead in the bizarre sci-fi epic Zardoz and the almost incomprehensible Highlander, wearing costumes so silly you can't believe he would consent to wear them (though, come to think of it, they weren't much sillier than what he wore in Mr. Universe competition during his body-building years). It suggests that he either had an affection for science fiction or, as he got older, a willingness to take any role that paid ... or both.

And thus made the next transition -- to character roles. He began appearing, sometimes in roles so small they were virtual cameos, in films where someone else had star billing. Some actors can't bear the blow to their pride -- which may explain why Sylvester Stallone and Harrison Ford are clinging to inappropriate starring roles by their fingernails. But Connery embraced it.

That's why he got those wonderful "also starring" roles in Time Bandits and Robin Hood and The Rock, and why he nearly stole Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade out from under Harrison Ford and absolutely did steal The Hunt for Red October from Alec Baldwin.

What's interesting about the two-hour tribute program on USA Network is that at times they seemed to be really reaching for people to get up and speak to and about Connery. It made a perverse kind of sense for Mike Myers to be there -- not only does his Austin Powers character owe everything to Connery's Bond, but Myers also did those "Everything Scottish" sketches during his years on Saturday Night Live.

But why in the world some of those people were there ... like the actress who had never met him, but did voice work on a game based on an old Bond movie. What were they thinking?

Of course, it's not like they could get Audrey Hepburn, and even Janet Munro, his co-star in Darby O'Gill, died many years ago.

They also had to think of the entertainment value of the two-hour show. Which explains why Eddie Izzard showed up -- because he really was funny and he's British and besides, he needed the gig to show his new sans-women's-clothing look.

And they had a fair smattering of people who had actually worked with Connery and had good stories to tell about him.

There were only a few embarrassing guests who had nothing to say and said it badly. I won't name names. I would if I could remember them, but my memory mercifully blocked out their names. Most of the guests, though, were quite good; and best of all were the montages and documentary bits about his early life.

The highlight, though, was Connery's own appearance. After an hour or so of being unfailingly appreciative of everyone's efforts -- an acting job if there ever was one, for he knew the camera could be turned on him at any moment, and he could not show anything but warm and positive feelings toward anybody -- it was his turn to go up on the stage and accept the award.

Since they played Scottish music as he made the trek to the stage, he replied by dancing a jig for a good many measures -- and dancing it well. His acceptance speech was honest, witty, kind, and touching. It was also brief, not gushy, and not self-serving. In short, it was what we expect from Sean Connery: quietly brilliant.

Yes, he played Bond. But you know what? I was never much of a fan of the Bond movies. I saw Goldfinger as a teenager and while I saw later ones, I never remembered a thing except that the stories got stupider and stupider until I stopped going.

For me, Connery is the actor who helped make Robin and Marian and The Man Who Would Be King deeply moving films. He's old now, and seems to have retired. But I wish I could get one of my movies made in time for him to be in it, like a jewel that outshines whatever setting you create for it.

*

And for another sort of tribute, this time to Harrison Ford, check out the montage of some of his movies in the satirical trailer for a nonexistent movie called Wife Force One at http://www.ifilm.com/ifilmdetail/2711610.


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