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Holywood Ending, Star Wars Episode II, About a Boy

[Our Sunday Visitor, June 6, 2002]

Hollywood Ending 

There’s a scene early in “Hollywood Ending” when Woody Allen, playing a neurotic and narcissistic movie director, fumbles through an important meeting saying all the wrong things. The people he desperately needs to impress looked pained, look away, and try to pretend he’s not the disaster that he is.

For the audience, the whole movie is like that. It’s a beautiful-looking movie, with glorious light and rich interiors, peopled with beautiful actors. But, unfortunately, Woody Allen keeps showing up. He looks awful, withered and baggy, mouth sagging like a worn-out purse. Lovely Tea Leoni must give him a lingering kiss at the end, and it’s enough to put you off kissing for a month.

The movie is not funny, the one-joke plot has no purpose, and actors deliver their lines in a plodding, deliberate manner suggesting that they’ve been tyrannized by the director. Many viewers will agree with David Denby, who wrote in the New Yorker, “I’m not sure I ever want to see Woody Allen onscreen ever again.” It’s a miserable Hollywood ending to what was a brilliant career.

Star Wars Episode II

“Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones” is a perfectly adequate movie. It’s not lame, like “The Phantom Menace;” the plot is almost comprehensible; action scenes are action-packed; and the horrid Jar-Jar Binks is held to a minimum.

But the strongest element of this film is its astonishing sets, which encompass a barely imaginable range of landscapes (and seascapes, in the case of the perpetually stormy planet of the clones). One minute we’re in the sumptuous Venetian environs of Naboo; next, it’s the desert of Tatooine where people live in mud structures daubed with whitewash. No set is of a reasonable size; everything is scaled big enough to take your breath away, and colored and appointed just a few degrees beyond sensible expectation. As someone said of a long-ago production of “Camelot,” “You come out humming the sets.”

If only the actors were capable of chewing all this scenery. Ewan McGregor, as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, is pleasant and likeable, and resembles Jesus in a Sunday School play. But Hayden Christensen, given the role of conflicted, complicated Anakin Skywalker, pouts and shouts ineffectively. That’s not acting, that’s lighting. He’s paired with Natalie Portman as Padme Amidala, who brings to her lines all the gravity of a Valley Girl. Though Anakin and Padme are supposedly overwhelmed by deathless love, they come across like cousins forced to sit together at Thanksgiving. “Attack of the Clones” is not bad, but you’ll enjoy it more if you take along a series enthusiast and watch him instead of the screen.

About a Boy

It’s a whole new Hugh Grant. Start at the top: gone is the floppy hair, replaced by a short ‘do which, his character tells us, requires two salon hours to be “carefully disheveled.” The puppy eyes, the apologetic mouth, the fumbling and tentative demeanor, are all gone; instead, he’s as firm-jawed and decisive as a lean Ted Danson.

And, according to the setup of this movie, he’s a total cad. Grant has attempted to play a cad before, in “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” “Small-Time Crooks,” and the first part of “Nine Months” (which “About a Boy” somewhat resembles in plot). In all those cases he was unconvincing, a sweet fellow peeping through the eyeholes of a shark costume. Grant must have gotten in touch with his inner rottenness, because this time it works.

It’s certainly a factor that he has excellent material to work with. The books of Nick Hornby (author of “About a Boy”) are extremely popular in Britain, but especially with men. This means Grant is playing a guy’s role, not a feminized dreamboat. Plus, it’s genuinely funny. The character Will is a layabout who lives off the royalties from his dad’s 1958 hit, “Santa’s Super Sleigh.” A date asks him how this works-do Christmas carolers have to pay ten percent? “Well they should, yeah,” Will observes, “But you can’t always catch the little bastards.”

Will’s main task is finding ways to spend his time-shopping for a CD, watching TV, “exercise” (playing pool). His favorite pastime, however, is collecting and discarding women. When a friend invites him to be godmother to her daughter, he declines with the explanation that he would ignore the child till she was 18, and then, “Let’s face it,” probably try to seduce her. The appalled mom responds, “I thought you had hidden depths, Will,” and he hastens to correct her, “No, no, no, you’ve always had that wrong. I really *am* this shallow.”

When Will decides that singles moms would make prime prey, he joins a “Single Parents Alone Together” (SPAT) group. He tells them his wife left him for his best friend, giving a little too much enthusiastic detail about the friend’s Ferrari. But when his target date invites along the child of another friend to the SPAT picnic, things get rolling in unexpected directions. Twelve-year-old Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) is well-balanced, self-assured and kind, but worried about his depressed mom-with good reason, it swiftly turns out. He naively assumes that if Will would marry his mom, she would get better, and sets about befriending a man who welcomes him as he would a plague of bees.

Sound sappy? It isn’t, because from here the plot goes in unexpected directions. Will doesn’t marry Marcus’s mom. New characters enter the plot, so that by the end it’s a variegated ensemble reminiscent of “Notting Hill“‘s crew. Will doesn’t have a teary breakthrough; he’s rather checkmated around the board until he finds himself acting in ways he never intended. And it stays funny, from beginning to end.

With so much to recommend this film, I feel bad about mentioning that Hoult’s appearance is a problem. With his powder-white face, raspberry lips, and devilish pointy eyebrows, he looks like a petulant, unpleasant kid. Nothing in Marcus’ character supports that first impression; he is genuinely a good kid from beginning to end. Viewers have to get past initial appearances, however, to appreciate the boy inside.

“About a Boy” takes the tired theme of cad-acquires-a-heart and does something fresh with it. Despite relentless (but character-appropriate) bad language, this is a moral movie, a little hammer-blow against a selfish culture, and potentially an effective one. As the ad states, “If there’s hope for Will, there’s hope for all of us.” 

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