Chance and Consequences

The hyperactive Run Lola Run is music video with a worldview. An Ideal Husband is good fun but not exactly Wilde.

Run Lola Run
Directed by Tom Tykwer
Sony Pictures Classics

An Ideal Husband
Directed by Oliver Parker
Miramax Films

Run Lola Run should, by rights, have commas in its title, but commas would be false to its tempo, which is alternately whooshing and staccato.!!!(RunLo//laRUN)//!!! would be closer to the mark. This gimmicky German thriller, poised to be a crossover smash, is that rare beast: a good“music video” movie. That is, it’s both fractured and fluid, with a helter-skelter syntax and a ceaselessly infectious backbeat. Beyond that, it’s a blast.

The premise is both simple and spherical. Punky, radish-haired Lola (Franka Potente) gets a panicky call from her boyfriend (Moritz Bleibtreu), who’s in a phone booth: Why didn’t she join him at the site of his big drug deal? Souped-up, black-and-white flashbacks illustrate her absence and his anguish: Her motorbike was stolen, she couldn’t pick him up, he left a bag of drug money on the subway, his boss will kill him if he doesn’t come up with 100,000 marks by noon. The camera rides in on Lola’s mouth as she shrieks at the prospect of losing her man. Zoom in on the clock: 20 minutes to noon. The phone arcs through the air. As Lola dashes by, the camera revolves around her mother’s room, then swoops in on a TV screen where a cartoon Lola is flying down a circular staircase past a neighbor’s barking dog and out into the street, where she’s live-action again and ready to run for her boyfriend’s life. I’ve left out maybe 50 shots, and it’s still just the first five minutes.

The critic Elvis Mitchell describes Run Lola Run as “a video game that even resets itself at the end of each round.” He means that Lola’s race against the clock concludes and then begins again, the story told three times with different permutations and wildly different outcomes. People always die, but never the same people: It depends on how fast the cartoon Lola makes it down those circular stairs. In one go-round she’s tripped and forced to hobble, which means she doesn’t bump into the woman with the baby carriage, which means she doesn’t arrive at her banker-father’s office to catch the exchange between him and his pregnant lover, which means she doesn’t stop her boyfriend from robbing a supermarket, which means … This is the other extreme from those Dickens or Hardy novels in which someone’s fate depends on his or her character; here, who lives or dies is a matter of a chance half-second or a random glance. People who cross Lola’s path are frozen in the frame, their futures telescoped in rapid-fire black-and-white snapshots: In one variation, a woman whom Lola bumps ends up destitute and prematurely dead; in another, she wins the lottery. All because of where her path crossed with Lola’s run.

If you watch a lot of StarTrek spinoffs, you’re no stranger to time loops, temporal fluxes, and the rippling consequences of chance–all staples of post-Stephen Hawking pop sci-fi. But Run Lola Run is more than the sum of its gimmicks: It has a real worldview. The young writer-director, Tom Tykwer, seems determined to kiss off the Sturm und Drang of generations of German culture. His running, red-haired riot grrrl stands for openness, crazed optimism, and a belief in endless possibilities–all of them underlined by multiple angles, split screens, slow and fast motion, and blizzards of hyperbolic imagery. Lola can breathe life back into her injured dad, whose illicit love affair is viewed as if it were a fuzzy video on a tired afternoon soap opera. She can charge through a flock of nuns (take that, Catholicism!), rob a huge bank (take that, Capitalism!), and stop a roulette wheel with her glass-shattering scream (take that, Chance!). She can goof something up and then replay the sequence until she gets it right, taking the narrative into her own hands. The movie could be dismissed as all adrenaline-swamped pyrotechnics, but adrenaline can be its own justification: In Run Lola Run, it makes stuff happen big-time.

O scar Wilde’s comedies are doubtless long-winded, but their wind blows in from a high peak: The characters’ formulations are bracing, and their epigrams have a sting. In the new, all-star adaptation of An Ideal Husband, one of Wilde’s richest plays, writer-director Oliver Parker has practically pared the speeches down to their topic sentences. The movie is diverting enough–it’s good fun–but much of the genius is gone with the wind.

The plot is ever contemporary. Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam) is esteemed by the world and revered by his wife, Gertrude (Cate Blanchett). He is that rare thing, a public figure with an unblemished past. But Wilde’s protagonists all have dark secrets, and Chiltern’s turns out to be a doozy. His fortune rests on a two-decades-old piece of insider trading involving a successful international canal scheme. An incriminating missive has fallen into the hands of an unscrupulous fortune hunter, Mrs. Cheveley (Julianne Moore), who’s happy to destroy it if Chiltern trashes his high ideals and throws his support to a real-estate scam in which his blackmailer is heavily invested. Exposure would be devastating to both his political and marital future, but how can he violate his principles? Help arrives from an odd source: Lord Goring (Rupert Everett), a rich, indolent bounder and somewhat halting suitor of Chiltern’s sister Mabel (Minnie Driver). An ex-flame of Mrs. Cheveley, Goring can match her in Machiavellian wiles. But can he help to repair Gertrude’s shattered faith?

R eviewing An Ideal Husband in 1895, George Bernard Shaw wrote that “the modern note is struck in Sir Robert Chiltern’s assertion of the individuality and courage of his wrongdoing as against the mechanical idealism of his stupidly good wife, and in his bitter criticism of love that is only the reward of merit.” This idea is probably more Shavian (or Ibsenite) than Wildean, but the larger point is clear: that Wilde was more concerned with exploding the notion of an “ideal” person than with punishing Chiltern’s sin, and in showing that part of becoming human is learning to forgive others’ lapses. That “modern” note is largely absent from Parker’s adaptation, in which Gertrude is the soulful center and Blanchett’s performance is radiant in its forthrightness. She’s so good, you don’t want her illusions to be dashed. The suspense is that of a conventional melodrama: Will Chiltern defy Mrs. Cheveley in the name of truth? And will the shiny-eyed Gertrude get to see him do it?

At his best, Parker brings out the waltzingly malicious undercurrents in Wilde’s “polite” intercourse, and his camera is at just the right distance to catch the anxious flickers of individuality under the socially mandated poses. That tension is superbly embodied in Julianne Moore, who issues poisoned ultimatums from behind a smile frozen firmly in place and an erect carriage that carries only subtle traces of the warped inner being. She and Northam have scenes of deliciously controlled viciousness. Almost as good are her scenes with Everett, who can’t quite transcend his languid self-love enough to make us believe that he once had a thing for her. He’s less credible yet making cow eyes at Minnie Driver, whose tomboyish gumption is often charming but more often strange.

The schlock-waltz score (at times bordering on calliope music) by Charlie Mole is one of the most grating ever written: It has a way of making the lines seem facetious. Was the hope that middlebrows would be seduced by its jaunty sentimentality and highbrows take it as ironic? It’s hard to know what is meant as irony. Parker transposes one scene to the inside of a theater–where, of all things, The Importance of Being Earnest is having its legendary premiere. Quite a tribute to the playwright, except that one set of Wilde’s characters now talks over the lines of another set and pays no attention to the action on stage. The result is not a fugue but an impertinence. What would Wilde have made of people so indifferent to both Earnest and his own famous curtain speech (here delivered by Michael Culkin)? Parker’s “tribute” ends up making Wilde seem both prolix and irrelevant. Was that the intention? To make his own adaptation seem more savvy?