Nick Nolte's craggily handsome face, steely eyes and whiskey-and-cigarettes voice are the epitome of ravaged old-movie grandeur. But in his heart, he's always been a character actor, not an icon.
Although resourceful directors have managed to use him that way -- notably Walter Hill in 48 HRS. and Extreme Prejudice and Karel Reisz in Who'll Stop the Rain? -- when he slips into mysterious matinee-idol mode, he always seems to be champing at the bit, wanting something more, something deeper.
It's rare that a leading role grants Nolte the chance to fuse both aspects of his screen potential. He got close in The Prince of Tides; he gets close again in Jefferson in Paris, the new historical epic from the reliable Merchant/Ivory team about the years Thomas Jefferson spent in France as a United States ambassador. The part is a gold mine for Nolte, who's better than almost any working actor at fusing stoic manliness and submerged sensitivity, instinctiveness and self-awareness.
With his distinctive block of a head hidden beneath a huge powdered wig, Jefferson isn't a terribly accessible figure. But Nolte's face is so suggestive that he can express emotions even when his character is at his most enigmatic. It's true, as another character observes, that Jefferson "wears his heart under a suit of armor," but thanks to Nolte, we can hear it faintly beating somewhere deep inside him.
If Nolte isn't transcendently great in the role, that's because the movie itself is deeply flawed. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's script is rich in details and incidents, but it never channels them into a propulsive narrative, and the longer this movie goes on, the less sense it makes.
We're treated to a plethora of scenes exploring Jefferson's romantic life in the aftermath of his beloved wife's death, during which he was linked with the sexy spouse (Greta Scacchi) of a foppish British painter. We view Jefferson's coolly distant relationship with his troubled oldest daughter, Patsy (Gwyneth Paltrow), and his impatience with the pretensions of French aristocratic life. We're also taken to various key locations and immersed in the concerns of the time. Some of these are wonderfully vivid, and others are merely interesting. But the most fascinating aspect of the film is its investigation of Jefferson's hypocrisy -- the distance between what he said and wrote about politics and morality and how he conducted his own life. A beehive of furious contradictions, Jefferson was a brilliant defender of the concept of individual liberty, a chief architect of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Yet as anyone who's waded hip-deep into the political correctness debate can tell you, this inarguably great man was also a slave owner.
While he fought for freedom, he also maintained a roster of servants at his Virginia plantation. When Jefferson's youngest daughter dies back in Virginia, Jefferson brings his middle daughter and her personal slave, Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton), over to Paris. Because Jhabvala and Ivory aren't prone to splashing lurid details all over the screen, what happens next is a bit murky; the gist is that Jefferson and Sally become lovers, and that their relationship is framed as a harbinger of American racial uprisings yet to come.
In cinematic terms, this is the most emotionally volatile and widely debated aspect of Jefferson's life, and it would have made for a strong, simple story if the filmmakers had chosen to explore it more thoroughly. But the filmmakers seem determined to cover as much ground as possible, so they toss in scenes and set pieces that are great to look at but only serve as distractions from the narrative. Like other Merchant/Ivory films -- but even more so -- Jefferson in Paris is obsessed with the minutiae of clothing, manners, body language, architecture and furnishings, often at the expense of drama.
Yet when the film sticks to Jefferson and Sally Hemings, it forges an emotional bond with the audience and brings an icy, intellectual, remote man and his much younger and less-educated lover into surprisingly sharp focus. Elsewhere, it's a jumbled canvas full of color, motion and wit that never quite resolves itself into an indelible picture of a man, his women and his long-gone world.
Don Juan DeMarco, the title character of writer/director Jeremy Leven's debut film, is far simpler. He's in love with love. That's all you need to know about him because that's all there is to know.
Fortunately, Johnny Depp is both a stunning camera subject and a passionate actor, which means that no matter how many different ways Don Juan pontificates about the power of passion, his enthusiasm never grows tiresome. As framed and lit by cinematographer Ralf Bode, his lithe frame, sculpted cheekbones and dark eyes recall silent film star Rudolph Valentino, and his wonky verbal stylings -- Ricardo Montalban by way of Pepe Le Pew -- caress vowels and consonants in an almost musical fashion.
Aside from his consuming interest in all things carnal, this Don Juan bears little relation to the famous Castillian hero. He's a mysterious 21-year-old clad in a Zorroesque getup who strolls the streets of 20th century New York on an endless quest for sensual adventure. We're never quite sure if he's the real article or just some randy loner who's wrapped himself in an alternate identity because his own no longer suits him; the film is deliberately coy on this point.
Jack Mickler (Marlon Brando), a burned-out psychiatrist at a Queens mental hospital who talks the hero out of a suicide attempt, isn't sure what to make of him, either. But because he's a reformed romantic himself, Jack becomes fond of his patient.
According to New York state law, he has ten days to examine the young man and establish whether he's a nut case who needs heavy medication and a padded room or just a hapless dreamer with an unusually rich fantasy life. The film consists mainly of three types of scenes: Don Juan spinning tall tales about his childhood, adolescence and sex life; flashbacks to the life in question; and sweet domestic scenes between Jack and his wife, Marilyn (Faye Dunaway, who doesn't have much to do but still seems to be having a grand time).
It's a given that Don Juan's rich (and richly erotic) stories will rekindle the Micklers' dormant marriage, and that the dreamer will eventually triumph over the cynics who want him institutionalized. The script's free-floating, slightly daft aura is exceptionally fragile; the slightest hint of condescension would have shattered it instantly. It's a storybook fable for adults -- Miracle on 34th Street with hormones.
But thanks primarily to the chemistry between the two male leads, the film is a delight from start to finish -- provided, of course, that you're willing to sympathize with a promiscuous, goofy and enigmatic protagonist whose only distinguishing characteristic is that he's in love with the idea of love.
Depp plays Don Juan with a hilariously straight face, which renders funny scenes funnier and sexy scenes sexier and makes Leven's amazingly ornate dialogue feel spontaneous and true -- the musings of a restless man who lives an epic life among trivial people. (This guy can't even find a simple way to tell Jack that one of his great loves was a virgin; he instead describes her as "unacquainted with the miracle of physical love.")
And Brando is surprisingly effective in a low-key, working-Joe part that's leagues away from the hammy, cameo hack jobs he's specialized in for the past couple of decades. Alert, bemused and sly, he moves and talks like a man half his age and one-third his weight.
In a sense, Jack Mickler's progress from bored old man to reinvigorated lover finds its parallel in Brando's performance: as a bored old doctor rediscovers how much he loves romance, the burned-out movie star who plays him rediscovers how much he loves acting.
Don Juan DeMarco isn't a perfect movie. It coasts along from set piece to set piece on the fumes of audience goodwill, and because Jeremy Leven is a better writer than director, it doesn't always find a visual equivalent for the passion expressed in the hero's words. But on its own sweetly kooky terms, it's a success.
In a key flashback, one of Don Juan's most ardent lovers asks the young stud how many conquests he's had, and is treated to a list of some 1,500 names. "The number," deadpans Don Juan, "was considerably higher than she was prepared to expect."
After sitting through this wonderful movie, so were my spirits.
Rob Roy, a new romantic adventure from director Michael Caton-Jones, concerns a rugged 18th-century Scottish highlander who battles evil British royals to save his land, his family and his honor.
The kilt-wearing, homily-spouting title character -- played by Liam Neeson as a cross between Jesus Christ, Shane and the Brawny towel man -- is the leader of a clan of roguish toughs-for-hire eking out a precarious living among the hills and moors of Scotland. When we first meet them, they're repossessing some stolen livestock for the Marquis of Montrose (John Hurt), a British oppressor who's engaged in a power spat with Killearn (Brian Cox), his Scottish counterpart.
To make an essentially simple yet inexplicably protracted story somewhat shorter, Rob Roy decides to borrow a thousand pounds from the Marquis to finance the expansion of his own lands. The Marquis' slimy underlings, led by a foppish swordsmaster (Tim Roth), double-cross Rob Roy. They steal the money from the hero's courier and best pal, Alan (Eric Stoltz). Then they kill Alan, hide his body and concoct a story about how Alan pilfered the money and fled to America.
The Marquis asks Rob Roy to side with him against Killearn in exchange for loaning him another thousand pounds, but our hero is too honest to do such a thing, and his impudence and inflexibility drives the Marquis into a homicidal snit. Rob Roy flees for the highlands, and in between tender domestic interludes with his loving wife, Mary (Jessica Lange), campfire strategy sessions with his fellow clansmen and the occasional defensive retreat into the moors, he tries to figure a way out of this mess.
The story has all the ingredients of a breathlessly romantic adventure tale, but neither veteran screenwriter Alan Sharp nor the director can figure out how to present them. The film's obsession with rotting teeth, spurting wounds, slain and gutted animals, mutilation, urination and torture seems to point toward a willful deglamorization of adventure-movie cliches, but these elements are canceled out by the good guys' Hollywood-perfect makeup and hair, the wide-screen vistas and the symphonic score.
With such superb elements at his disposal, Caton-Jones could have easily created either a popcorn swashbuckler or a serious-minded, Iron John adventure epic about the consequences of machismo. But because he wants both and isn't very smart, he achieves neither. Rob Roy is the kind of muddled movie that allows the hero's wife to berate him for being stubborn and macho and relying on violence to solve things, then turns around and wraps up the narrative with a crowd-pleasing sword fight. It's also the kind of movie that goes to great lengths to provide the bad guys with believable motivations, then chucks them out the window during a village-pillage jamboree in which a cute dog is shot, houses are torched, cattle are slaughtered and the hero's wife is graphically raped on a kitchen table.
Even more damaging is the film's conception of Rob Roy as an archetypal hero who exists mostly to be adored; when he isn't bestowing his manly endowments on his ever-grateful wife, he's slaying enemies as if swatting flies, delivering helpful lectures to his sons or listening blank-faced as his fellow highlanders tell him how wise, fast, strong, deadly, handsome and potent he is. The result feels like a Steven Seagal movie directed by David Lean. Neeson is a monumental screen presence -- six feet three inches of pure testosterone, with a craggy face capped by a broken-prow nose that suggests an Easter Island statue with stubble. He doesn't need to be hyped. That his director seems hell-bent on doing so suggests that nobody involved with Rob Roy had the slightest idea of what they wanted to achieve.
Three years ago, Daniel Day-Lewis was ferociously convincing as a one-dimensional, rifle-slinging, quick-sprinting love god in Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans, but only because the film was structured as a hyperkinetic fairy tale with only the vaguest tethering to reality. It was a pure visceral experience. Judging from Rob Roy's newspaper ads, billboard images and television spots, United Artists would love to make moviegoers think they're buying a ticket to a Scottish version of the same. But they aren't. Rob Roy huffs and puffs on its celluloid bagpipes, but no music comes out -- just a long, slow, tuneless moan.
Jefferson in Paris.
Directed by James Ivory. With Nick Nolte.
Don Juan DeMarco.
Directed by Jeremy Leven. With Marlon Brando and Johnny Depp.
Directed by Michael Caton-Jones. With Liam Neeson.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.