By Stephanie Zacharek
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Ever since Quentin Tarantino came along, it's been hard to predict what you'll find playing at the art-house theater. Why, many of these so-called highbrow cinemas have the nerve to show films that aren't always of high quality! And some of these flicks don't even feature foreign accents or frilly costumes! Let's not even delve into the unspeakable horror of the movies that are set in -- ugh! -- America.
All sarcasm aside, anyone who's ever worked in an art house knows that customers often arrive knowing nothing about the movie they have just paid to see, then demand a refund when their blind choice turns out to be insufficiently "arty." Fewer and farther between are the indie films you can feel safe taking your conservative friends and elders to see. This week, however, salvation is at hand. BeholdThe Man Who Cried, an "old-school" art film straight out of a how-to textbook: The movie delivers high culture (opera), actors with accents (Cate Blanchett doing Russian, Christina Ricci English, and Johnny Depp a vague kind of generic European), a period setting (World War II), inoffensive social sentiment (Nazis and other prejudiced people are bad) and, of course, lots of costumes. All from Sally Potter, the director of Orlando and The Tango Lesson, no less. If this is what you like, have at it. If not, there's always that movie about planes bombing a harbor.
Now, how about that title? Women dreaming of a sensitive man are bound to be drawn by it, especially with Depp in the film. So perhaps it should be noted that, though Depp does shed tears once, the verb cry in this case primarily refers to using one's singing voice (though the double meaning is no doubt intentional). In fact, since there are two male singers who thusly cry, the title could refer to any of three main characters. Debate this among yourselves, as it may be the only point likely to cause any controversy.
The first man who cries is simply known as Father (Oleg Yankovskiy), a Russian Jew who sings to his young daughter Suzie (Claudia Lander-Duke, who grows up to be Ricci). When poverty grips their small snowy village, Father heads to America to make some real money for his family back home. Then, when anti-Semitism causes the village to be burned down, Suzie gets shipped off to England to live with a foster family that aggressively tries to make her assimilate, to which she responds with a subdued rampage. The only person who understands her is an authoritarian music teacher, who confides that "they wouldn't let me speak Welsh either, but it did me a world of good." Before long, Suzie is a teen with a great singing voice (courtesy of Iva Bittova) and an English accent; she heads to Paris to become a chorus girl, which she hopes is a step in the right direction toward America.
Suzie ends up rooming with the annoying Russian blabbermouth Lola (Blanchett), who enthusiastically declares, "We will share everything, everything!" and apparently originates what will one day become that best-selling 1990s book The Rules ("There are rules of how you get your man .You have to play hard to get"). Still, her talent for flirting gets her hooked up with a bombastic Italian opera star, Dante Dominio (John Turturro, with singing voice by Salvatore Licitra), who gets Lola and Suzie small parts in his current stage production, presided over by the eternally amenable Felix Perlman (Harry Dean Stanton). Rounding out the operatic cast are some gypsies, and wouldn't you know it, one of them just happens to be a sensuous hunk who teaches uptight Suzie how to relax by having sex with her. The peripatetic hunk, of course, is Depp, who seems to have walked directly off the set of Chocolat, remaining in character and costume, but ditching the Irish accent for a more continental one.
Dante, being the pompous and ignorant divo that he is, resents the gypsies. He also likes Mussolini, likening Blackshirt rallies to opera. So when the Nazis come marching into Paris, he immediately makes friends and rats out the truth about Suzie's Russian-Jewish heritage. It's time for Suzie to leave, but only if she can tear herself away from the smoldering gypsy passion of Depp.
There's nothing particularly wrong with this whole setup; it's just very by-the-numbers. All the actors do fine with their accents, and although Depp is not convincing, the others are. The problem is that there's no dramatic tension. Getting out from under the watchful eye of the Nazis should be harder than simply worrying about a tearful good-bye. No chases through the streets of Paris? No indication of how dangerous the Nazis are? Everything works out too easily, and nothing unpredictable happens, save perhaps for a forced disaster near the end that seems quickly shrugged off. It's hard to worry about Suzie when she herself never seems worried. It's also hard to hate the buffoonish villain Dante, since he never seems truly dangerous.
What matters most about The Man Who Cried is its genre. If you like period films in which actors do accents and learn to feel passion while evading Nazis, you'll find this to be a perfectly competent piece of entertainment. If traditional artsy fare isn't your thing, no need to bother.
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