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September 24, 1999 - Image 9

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Publication:
The Michigan Daily, 1999-09-24

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Free 'Dreams'
U Akira Kurosawa's '90s entry screens tonight at Lorch.
Soetically filmed, these 8 scenarios express the beauty of the
egendary Kurosawa. 7 p.m.

Utie Stchfian &ifg

Monday in Daily Arts:
Check out Steve Gertz's large concert review of SuLer
Furry Animals.
Friday
September 24, 1999

9

A

Bland'
'Mumford'
shows
littfle flair
Erin Podolsky
Daily Arts Writer
Lawrence Kasdan, in ' his time
since leaving the University, has
focused his directing career - unlike
the epic adventure stories he wrote
for "Return of the Jedi" and "Raiders
of the Lost Ark" - on small stories
where maybe nothing much happens
t, as a wise musician once said, a
ot goes on. He's done quite well for
himself with these tales thus far:
"The Big Chill" is the kind of movie
your parents force you to watch
because they love it so much and you
should too, while "Grand Canyon"
garnered critical praise if not box
office success.
Now Kasdan has made

Spacey, Bentley fuel
fantasy of'Beauty'

By Aaron Rich
Dah Arts Writer
It might be possible to live in a world
where there is no deep substance, where
everything important lies on the surface,
where all that matters is an outward
image, a superficial glance. Such a
place, it need not be said, would be espe-
cially frustrating and lonely (if even
those feelings could be found).
This place of fantasy might be closer
to home than we think - at least that is
the argument of first-time film director
Sam Mendes in "American Beauty."
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a
middle-aged office worker with the per-
feet American (and perfectly American)
existence. His wife, Carolyn (Annette
Benning) is an independent real-estate
agent, his daughter Jane (Thora Birch)
dances with her friends on her high

Courtesy of Touchstone Pictures
Doc Mumford (Loren Dean) and Alfre Woodard take a moment to pause in University alum Lawrence Kasdan's "Mumford."

"Mumford," a
Mumford
At Showcase
and State

small-town affair
through and
through. It's a
tale of the town
of Mumford's
people and their
idyll-shattering
psychological
problems that
they air in the
presence of the
conveniently
named Doc
Mumford (Loren
Dean). Like
Kasdan's previ-

Oh, sure, there are the usual reve-
lations. The rich kid is lonely, the fat
pharmacist has sexual hangups that
make it impossible for any woman to
fulfill him, the criminal lawyer seeks
therapy for the sake of seeking and is
summarily expelled from Doc's
office. And - it is no crime in
revealing this, as the trailers for
"Mumford" already, foolishly, have
- Doc himself is revealed to be a
shyster, a fraud, a capital gainer at
the expense of others.
This not-so-shocking stunner is let
loose midway through the film, but
it's almost anti-climactic since prac-
tically every audience member
knows it going in. We're treated to
the obligatory sob story about why
Doc changed his identity, left his old
life behind and became a literal
quack. Kasdan encourages us to care
and root him on in his quest for Sofie
(Hope Davis), one of his patients, as
we care and root on the remainder of
the cast as they find love and happi-
ness with each other: Skip
Skipperton (an unusually restrained
Jason Lee), Lily (Alfre Woodard),
Nessa (Zooey Deschanel), Martin
(Jason Ritter), Henry (Pruitt Taylor
Vince) and Althea (Mary

McDonnell).
Some of these people are mildly
fun, although it's clear that Kasdan
was reaching for a way to keep us
from walking out on the movie by
handing each character a special,
carefully planned out quirk. One
makes a surrogate companion sextoy,
while another is obsessed with mag-
azines.
There is a light in this morass of
boredom, though: Pharmacist Henry
has old-fashioned fantasies that
seem to take place when men were
big burly drifters and women were
buxom and lived in boarding houses,
ripe for the taking. We're made privy
to these and they are at once laugh-
ably good-natured and as prim as
pornography can be, amusing and
providing a much-needed break from
day-to-day life in Mumford.
Dean and Davis do nothing to save
the film. Dean has spent nearly ten
years trying to become a true leading
man, failing to live up to promise
after "Billy Bathgate." "Mumford" is
not going to save him, not by a long
shot. He's pleasant enough in
demeanor and face, to be sure, but
nothing more than that. He's like a
blank page. There's nothing going on

behind his eyes that we can see,
there's nothing to draw us into his
world and his motivations. Davis,
meanwhile, whines and wanders her
way through "Mumford" pausing
every now and then to look particu-
larly pathetic. Even when she's try-
ing to convey elation, she looks like
she's five seconds away from com-
plete collapse. Granted, her charac-
ter is somewhat ill, but by the end of
the film she's supposedly feeling
"one hundred percent better."
Evidence? Nil.
"Mumford" is, like its namesake
small town, quaint and attractive in
its way. But when it starts to become
painfully clear that its citizens are
probably overly dramatic and that the
citizens outshine the hero to the
point that he never was, never is and
never will be the guy we want to see
succeed, that's when it's time to close
up shop.
"Mumford" commits the worst
deadly sin of cinema: It is not enter-
tainingly bad and it is not entertain-
ingly good. The laughs are few, as
are the tears. After so many wonder-
ful movies, Kasdan has finally suc-
ceeded in making one that is square-
ly uninspired.

American
Beauty
At Showcase

school's dance
squad and his nice
suburban neigh-
borhood is filled
with friends
always willing to
share a pleasant
conversation.
Lester's prob-
lem is that

the American suburban landscape With
help from screenwriter Alan Ball and an
.unappologetic eye. he points out our
inconsistencics and our Ioibies.
it is Mendes' obreign-ness that helps
give him a good vantage point rom
which to see the silliness of this c(.untry
-- it is also his freshness that make his
points so palateable.
It is, to the film's disadvantage, also
due to this virgin quality that the film
does not come across as smoothly as
possible. Whereas a film by a vet-ran
director will glide gracefully from scene
to scene, "Beauty" feels pushed along by
sheer story writing; sequences are
oafishly placed next to each other wkkh a
disregard for our conception of time wid
place.
Throughout, though, solid acting dri-
yes the machine. Spacey gives one of the
best, most delicate performances of his
career as a man coming to terms with the
bullshit of his life. He changes from
happy-go-lucky to proud to wrathfil
with a classic elegance. He lets punch
lines work themselves out without too
much overdone performance.
Benning plays a sturdy opposite to
Spacey's goofiness and crisis. She lets him
have his scenes and waits for the right
moment to steal a few seconds of greatness
The supporting cast also stands up
well against this challenging material.
Suvari, who played the goody-two-shoes
choir love in "American Pie!' finds a
deeper level to the role of "desirable
teen." She flirts with the camera, and us,
makes us long for her approval, and then
turns and insults us. She is both shallow
and wise - utterly despicable and utter-
ly erotic at the same time.
The maverick Chris Cooper plays
Colonel Fitts, Ricky's enigmatic, author-
itarian father with a moderate touch that
makes us want to slug him and embrace
him in the same moment. Newcomer
Bentley re-acts beautifdlly to this strong
figure with a firm, natural good-ness.
ie seems ultra-real in this world of false
fronts and lies.
Never accepting anything for what it
appears to be is a tough way to live and
work. Perhaps the world of "American
Beauty" is fictitious, but then again, it
does feel rather familiar.

nobody, not even
him, is what they
seem - and
nobody is happy.
This seemingly
average "mid-life
crisis" story becomes anything but typi-
cal when the Fitts family moves in to the
house next door. Lester becomes friend-
ly with the son, Ricky (newcomer Wes
Bentley), who has a unique, wiser-than-
his-years view of life.
With Ricky's help, Lester tries to find
out what is honest and important in his
dismal life. One of the bright spots,
though, is his daughter's friend, Angela
Hayes (Mena Suvari) - lest we forget
another nymphet named Hayes - who
is, in his mind, the most beautiful person
in the world. His desirous and sinful fan-
tasies of Angela lead him down a road of
self-serving behavior.
Mendes, a Brit, whose previous expe-
rience revolves around Broadway and
the London stage, brings a fresh look to

ous work, there
is a protagonist (Mumford) but he
tends to be overshadowed by the
greater ensemble of characters that
has been assembled.
Unfortunately for "Mumford," the
overshadowing plays more like a
total eclipse of the brain. There is lit-
Ve in the movie that is compelling,
interesting or, dare I say it, comedic,
as "Mumford" is being marketed as a
comedy.

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