Hams in Winter

DiCaprio, Newman, Hurt, et al.

The Man in the Iron Mask
Directed by Randall Wallace
MGM-UA Films

Directed by Robert Benton
Paramount Pictures

Love and Death on Long Island
Directed by Richard Kwietniowski
Cinepix Film Properties

The Alexandre Dumas-inspired swashbuckler The Man in the Iron Mask is thoroughly second-rate–which is to say that it waddles when it ought to whiz, clanks when it strives for cornball poetry, and transforms its august stars into something akin to a manic dinner-theater troupe. Nevertheless, armed with a tub of popcorn, a Three Musketeers bar, and an industrial-size Diet Coke (with free refills), I liked it better than the other, more artful pictures I saw this week. Here’s an example of why: In Twilight, aging gumshoe Paul Newman regards glamorous movie queen Susan Sarandon with anguished eyes, his longing for her at war with his loyalty to her cancer-ridden husband (Gene Hackman). It’s terribly tasteful and grown-up, but not half as compelling as musketeer Gabriel Byrne’s fervid declaration to foxy Queen Mother Anne Parillaud in The Man in the Iron Mask: “To love you is a treason against France–not to love you a treason against my heart.” To love a line like that is a treason against my high aesthetics–not to love it a treason against my even higher propensity for florid kitsch.

The Man in the Iron Mask features Leonardo DiCaprio (LEO!!! LEO IS DA BOMB! I LOVE YOU LEO! LEO OH GOD PLEASE READ THIS!!! LEO IS GAY! LEO IS NOT GAY YOU’RE JEALOUS! LEO IS A BEAUTIFUL HUMAN BEING WHO LOVES WOMEN!!! LEO PLEASE MARRY ME!!!!) in the dual role of the overweening 17th century boy king Louis of France and his twin brother, Philippe, who was first spirited away at birth by a father fearful of internecine struggles and subsequently locked in the bowels of the Bastille, his features concealed by the eponymous iron mask.

That would have been all, folks, were Louis not a complete schmuck who capriciously drains the kingdom’s coffers with foreign wars, starves a lot of smudgy faced extras (who hurl rotten fruit at his guards), and falls on whatever beauteous wench strikes his royal fancy. When he royally fancies the lady love (Judith Godrèche) of the son (Peter Sarsgaard) of former musketeer Athos (John Malkovich) and orders the young man shipped off to battle, it’s time for the aging Three Musketeers–Athos, Aramis (Jeremy Irons), and Porthos (Gérard Depardieu)–to haul their uniforms out of mothballs and prove once again that they’re more than the stuff of chocolate bars.

This is the first feature directed by Randall Wallace, who wrote Braveheart (1995), in which Mel Gibson manages to bellow “FREEDOM!” shortly before his upper and lower halves are cleft in twain–thereby liberating Scotland from hordes of slumming Royal Shakespeare Co. actors. Wallace has a thing for men who die with their boots on. (“This is the death I have always wanted,” gasps one fellow in this picture’s lachrymose climax.) He also digs resplendent brocades, alarums, male choirs, and handsome men on horseback saying things like: “Then God be with you. For we shall not.” He apparently has no taste for pacing his actors, who are left to police their own histrionic impulses–which is like leaving our president to police his libidinous ones.

B yrne, as D’Artagnan, the fourth musketeer, torn between his loyalty to the king and to his all-for-one/one-for-all compatriots, has the most complicated role and carries it off with real dignity and discernment (which means, of course, that he’s just a teeny bit dull). Depardieu, meanwhile, demonstrates that Gallic ham is fattier than its Anglo counterpart. Irons and Malkovich bring to the picture two distinct styles of prissiness. Irons is the upper-class English poet priss, locking liquid eyes on his co-stars and gravely over-enunciating. Malkovitch is the American Method priss, feyly dragging out his words and democratically abolishing all punctuation. (As his son, Sarsgaard does a brilliant–and respectful–Malkovitch impersonation that’s maybe the best thing in the movie.)

At first it seems that DiCaprio (LEO DESERVED A NOMINATION!!!) will be another contestant in the American juvenile falling on his face doing period European drama contest. (The reigning champion is Keanu Reeves.) Playing the swinish king, his performance begins badly, and the long hair doesn’t flatter his wide, doughy face and compressed brow. But once the nice twin enters the movie, DiCaprio can use his expressive eyes (LEO!!! READ THIS!!!) and his halting sweetness to win us back into his good graces. (OH MY GOD LEO IS THE GREATEST AHHHHH!!!)

It isn’t nice to beat up on senior citizens, which must be why Robert Benton’s Twilight has received such respectful reviews. A third-rate mystery tricked out with a great cast and some tony cinematography, the movie unspools like an elderly director’s swan song–a bitter, late-Romantic threnody for the lost integrity of an American archetype, co-opted by the evils of a shabbily materialistic culture.

Benton isn’t an old man–he only directs like one. This is essentially a twilit remake of his wonderful 1977 thriller, The Late Show, in which a senior citizen shamus (Art Carney) wrestles with both a brutal murder and the innumerable humiliations of aging (they’re connected), happily assisted by a New Age flake (Lily Tomlin, in her most exuberant screen performance). Twilight is The Late Show without the spitfire, and it succumbs to the paralysis it means to portray. As the hero, Newman lets his voice go raspy to express world-weariness. His mournful performance ennobles Benton’s conception without enlivening it. For Benton, aging evidently means forgetting everything you once knew about drama.

M ore enlivening by far is Love and Death on Long Island, in which another aging protagonist (John Hurt), a clubby English novelist poignantly out of touch with modern society, goes on another soulful quest, developing an obsession with a beautiful teen idol (Jason Priestley) whom he accidentally sees on-screen in a film called Hot Pants College 2. First-time director Richard Kwietniowski has fun with the collision of high and low culture, and he does elegant work. But his mistake is the opposite of Benton’s in Twilight. Where Benton couldn’t distance himself enough from his protagonist to generate a comic perspective, Kwietniowski can’t keep from satirizing his hero’s passion. Emotionally, the picture plays it safe, hugging the shore.

Hurt’s face is so deeply lined that he now resembles Boris Karloff’s mummy–not flesh and blood but flakes and embalming fluid. But if Hurt has the kind of visage we normally associate with dissipation, few actors are able to combine such bleariness with such (oxymoronic) concentration. This is a gentle tour de force by one of our greatest comic miniaturists.