"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 11 April 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.


Call Western Union




When former Next Karate Kid Hilary Swank accepted the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of alpha-tomboy Teena Brandon, she told the watching millions that Boys Don't Cry couldn't have been made two years ago. Is that what she meant? After all, the people who produced that film have been at it with movies like Swoon, Kids, and I Shot Andy Warhol for almost 10 years now. What Swank's acceptance speech really announced was the triumphant return of the Message Movie. As pleas for tolerance go, Boys Don't Cry may be more sophisticated than most, but in a period that's given us The Insider and Erin Brockovich and even let liberal-issue specialist Norman Jewison return with The Hurricane, there can't be any doubt: Action-adventure is a dinosaur from Jurassic Park. Starting now, filmmakers who crave critical acclaim and box office sizzle had better get out of the bullet rain and under the umbrella of Importance. As sure as Swank will never again have to read for a part that Ralph Macchio wouldn't touch, you can bet Keanu Reeves just started looking for a script with a social conscience.


Fondly remembered American films have always won the hearts (if not the minds) of audiences by delivering nice round messages: Greed can kill you (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre); nuclear war would be bad (Fail-Safe); we're all brothers under the skin (The Defiant Ones); nuclear war would be so bad that we shouldn't even have one (WarGames); it's funny when old guys use the F word (Grumpy Old Men); nuclear war would be so freaking bad it'd make your hair fall out and Kevin Costner might survive (Testament). There was even a time not so long ago when Tinseltown showed an almost Islamic dedication to Message over Image. But in general, the advisability of actually trying to say something Important has mostly been dismissed with the famous quip attributed to both Columbia studios strongman Harry Cohn and his competitor, malaprop maven Sam Goldwyn (although the ever-youthful Rex Reed says it was G. B. Shaw): If you want to send a message, call Western Union.


Thus, we can bet Hollywood won't stop churning out crash-boom fare with scent-of-the-'80s titles like "Reindeer Games" just because Hilary Swank says so. Somebody — whether film producer or moviegoer — will always think Arnold Schwarzenegger is a good thing to spend money on. But what's a stumble-tongued incomplete sentence aimed at an over-the-hill character actor compared to a loud-and-clear Julia Roberts tirade against The Man, The System, and the low-wage, single-mother, cockroach-ridden, cancer-causing Unfairness of It All? The national mood has turned. Waterworld was a bad dream. There's real trouble out there, folks, and the villains are anonymous utility companies and faceless cigarette manufacturers. They're not Dennis Hopper in an eye patch on a barge.




Erin Brockovich, a crowd pleaser with a committed underdog heroine as politically savvy as Rocky Balboa, proves it. A Mrs. Miniver for the class-action set, it succeeds where John Travolta's poisoned-well movie — uncomfortable semi-Message fare still silhouetting a square-shouldered superman against a wall of fire — failed. Brockovich is a custom-fitted Julia Roberts vehicle, a repudiation of the yuck-o values of Pretty Woman, and an attack on corporate malfeasance all rolled into a candy bar you buy to help the rain forest: It tastes great, and even though it's not really good for you, you're pretty sure it's good for someone.


Roberts — dressed in a series of peekaboo outfits guaranteed to move copies of the Frederick's of Hollywood catalog into the mailboxes of secretaries who work for the kind of law firms that advertise on TV — is Silkwood- and Mask-period Cher trapped inside a lollipop, a jujube Norma Rae with Junior Mint eyes, ready to clean up a Superfund site in stack heels. Despite the parade of cancerous lumpenproles and a water-sample collection scene that looks like her screen test for Mr. Death, Roberts forces every moment to work for her; she insists that her triumph is ours, and when justice comes in the end like a lottery win, we know she deserves it, just like we all do. That's the message of the New Message Movie: If you've been wronged, you could end up on the big screen. Maybe they'll even give you a cameo in your own life story, the way Pee-wee Herman got to play a hotel clerk in the movie-within-a-movie in Pee-wee's Big Adventure.


Boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter sure was wronged, but Denzel Washington doesn't have it as good in The Hurricane as Roberts does in Brockovich. Yet just like the real Erin, the real Carter makes an appearance in his own biopic. He holds a gold title belt over his head as if he's just received a gigantic check from Ed McMahon. Brockovich is probably pleased with Steven Soderbergh's version of her, but it's hard to imagine that Carter could feel anything at all about Jewison's version of him.


A scene in The Hurricane featuring nothing but pieces of paper with writing on them being thumbtacked to a bulletin board is like a model for the whole movie — it's a shooting script read aloud by an assistant director. With police sergeants and prison wardens cast seemingly because Divine and Al Lewis weren't available, with sub-Scorcesean black-and-white fight scenes less exciting than wrestling kinetoscopes from the '50s, and with a soundtrack so bad it even makes Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" sound like background music in a K-Tel records commercial, The Hurricane still wants to be a monument to the power of Carter's written words. It ends up as a testament to the poverty of Jewison's images.




Jewison came to prominence in the socially conscious Hollywood of the '60s. Back then, he could turn what might have been simply an exciting policier like 1967's In the Heat of the Night with Sidney Poitier (the Denzel of his day) into an Oscar-machine Message Movie far more modish than anything Stanley (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, also with Poitier) Kramer, the father of the genre, could dream of. Night and Dinner came out the same year; the Big Issue torch passed from Kramer to Jewison via Sidney Poitier. By the time Jewison was earning his keep as the good conscience of the film industry, Kramer — who, in the '50s, was the gold standard of not only the Message but the Medium — was trying to keep up by making movies like R.P.M. Considered instantly out-of-it, dismissable dreck on its 1970 release, this Erich (Love Story) Segal$#150;scripted campus drama starred Ann-Margret, with Anthony Quinn as an embattled college president. Its camp status kept it alive through the '80s, and it is final-phase Kramer like R.P.M. that will most likely restore his reputation, or at least renew interest in his work as the Hollywood Message Center keeps the Right at bay once again.

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