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They Grow Up Fast

Matilda is a girl wise beyond her years; Jack, a boy trapped in a man's body

And then there is Ferris as Miss Trunchbull, a stern tyrant (and one-time Olympic shot-put competitor) with a simple motto: "If you are having fun, you are not learning." Ferris is nothing short of marvelous, and her character's final comeuppance will no doubt cause the multiplexes to reverberate with cheers. Perhaps the most bizarre thing about this gleefully bizarre movie is the way DeVito uses Ferris as a walking sight gag. With her imposing girth and her vaguely fascist-style uniform, she resembles nothing so much as Shirley Stoler's concentration camp commander in Lina Wertmuller's Seven Beauties. No kidding.

On the other hand, Robin Williams often sounds like he's doing his own manic version of Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man as he flits through the more amusing moments in Jack. Williams is the perfect choice for the title role, a ten-year-old boy with the body of a 40-year-old man. Maybe a little too perfect, as a matter-of-fact. Here and there, it's obvious that Williams, even while he remains in character, is ad-libbing in ways that are a little too close to his standup improvisational riffs. But, then again, this has always been a large part of Williams' appeal: his unfettered eagerness to race off in any direction, to push himself toward any extreme, like a child suddenly given carte blanche in a toy store. Little wonder, then, that Coppola would want an actor who could bring that quality to playing a ten-year-old man-child.

Unfortunately, a great deal of Jack is as predictable and risk-free as the casting. For the first ten years of his life, Jack stays at home with his mother (Diane Ladd) and father (Brian Kerwin), and is educated by a private tutor (Bill Cosby). Jack's afraid, and his mother is terrified, that other children of Jack's age will treat him as a freak. And, sure enough, after the tutor finally convinces his parents that Jack should attend school, the other fifth-graders respond to him with cruel taunts and extreme nervousness. But then Jack proves himself on the schoolyard basketball court. Suddenly, he's hanging out with the guys in a back-yard tree house, joking about "boners" and flatulence and supplying his friends with "dirty magazines." (It helps to look like a grownup when you want to buy a copy of Penthouse.)

Complications arise, but none so serious that there's ever any doubt that we'll get a feel-good, aggressively inspirational ending. Just in case we miss the point of the movie, screenwriters James DeMonaco and Gary Nadeau thoughtfully place these words in a character's mouth: "None of us have very long on this Earth. Life is fleeting."

Yes, it is. Which makes it all the more curious that, given his awareness of how relatively short his life will be, Jack doesn't try to cram more experiences -- yes, more adult experiences -- into what little time he has. Jack has a scene where our hero announces his infatuation with a teacher (Jennifer Lopez), and another scene where a classmate's mother (played with a nicely unaffected carnality by Fran Drescher) tries to seduce what she thinks is a consenting adult. For the most part, however, Coppola and his screenwriters dodge the question of whether Jack might ever have any kind of sex life. At one point, the narrative simply jumps ahead seven years, so we can see Jack at -- well, it wouldn't be fair to give away the ending, I suppose. But suffice it to say that, if you knew you had as little time as Jack, you probably wouldn't spend it the way he does. Or if you did, you certainly would do other things as well, things that the filmmakers would prefer not to think about.

Despite the fart jokes and the occasionally naughty language, Jack is so wholesome and upbeat that I fully expect it to spin off a weekly TV series within the next 18 months. Some of it is very funny, and a few scenes are downright hilarious. But it never really delivers on the promise of its intriguing premise. Compared to DeVito's audaciously exuberant Matilda, Coppola's warm and fuzzy fable seems timid and toothless.

Matilda.
Directed by Danny DeVito. With Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman and Mara Wilson.
Rated PG.
93 minutes.

Jack.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Starring Robin Williams.
Rated PG-13.
113 minutes.

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