Parlor Games

In the studiously crafted Reindeer Games, the fun is in watching Ben Affleck get clobbered.

Reindeer Games
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Miramax Films

Wonder Boys
Directed by Curtis Hanson
Paramount Pictures

Ben Affleck has a long, oval face and a big chin, and in the new thriller Reindeer Games, director John Frankenheimer photographs him so that his head fills the screen like the Goofy float in the Macy’s parade. The whole movie is like a parade seen by a tiny person sitting too close: Characters loom, their huge heads slanting heavenward. Frankenheimer packs his frames like no one since Orson Welles. In most shots, one person occupies the foreground while another hovers in back—over the shoulder like a little angel or devil. And since Reindeer Games is about an ex-con sap (Affleck) who pretends to be someone he’s not and gets kidnapped and pummeled and pushed around by scummy thugs (led by Gary Sinise), the crammed, airless, in-your-face compositions feel nerve-rackingly right. The picture is an empty parlor trick, but it’s carried out with a master’s concentration.

How does Affleck’s Rudy get into this bind? His prison buddy, Nick (James Frain), takes a shiv a couple of days before the pair is supposed to be released, which leaves Nick’s lovelorn pen pal Ashley (Charlize Theron) standing alone and hopeful at the gate in a pair of jeans that sculpt her long thighs and butt in a way that would impel any heterosexual male to say, “Hi, I’m Nick.” The problem is that Nick was once a guard at a Native American-run casino in the snowy north, and Ashley’s hick werewolf brother (Sinise) and a gang of chaps with names like Merlin (Clarence Williams III), Pug (Donal Logue), and Jumpy (Danny Trejo) are convinced that Rudy has the wherewithal to get them into the fabled room with the monster stacks of bills. To convince them otherwise—and expose his true identity—would mean a bullet in the head. To lead a robbery into a heavily guarded casino in which he has never been would likely mean many bullets in the head.

The finale features Santas getting incinerated and riddled with bullets, but beyond that I can’t say much. The studio, Miramax (through its subsidiary, Dimension), has stuck a note on my press kit that reads: “ReindeerGames is filled with twists and turns that we hope will keep the audience guessing. … We would appreciate that you protect its unexpected plot developments so that the audience can enjoy them for the first time.” Or snort at them for the first time. The script by Ehren Kruger (Scream 3) has wit and texture but also one twist too many: It carries the kind of climactic revelation in which the real villain needs five minutes to explain how he/she did it while the audience repeats, “Huh? Huh? Huh?” like a mantra. But it’s fun to watch Theron and try to guess whether she’s a credulous and loving bimbo or a criminal mastermind, either of which would be possible only in a movie.

Only in a movie, too, would you hear Ben Affleck say, “I was doing a hard five for grand theft auto.” Nah, not Ben. He’s such a facetious preppie lug that I laughed out loud at the sight of him mixing it up with the homies in maximum security. Once he gets out, though, this isn’t a bad part for him. His deadpan is amusing when he’s forced to make up whoppers for the rednecks. And whenever he drifts into a Woody Allen shtick, one of the bad guys usually whomps him, and both the blow and his ooof get the full Dolby Surround Sound treatment. Affleck isn’t one of those actors (like Sylvester Stallone) who looks as if he enjoys getting beaten up so much that he deprives the audience of sadistic pleasure. He’d much rather sit there with a doughily complacent smirk. Getting clobbered in the gut or kicked in the head or speared by darts is work for Ben. And big fun for us.

Just as likely as Ben Affleck doing a hard five is Michael Douglas as a novelist and a creative-writing teacher. Douglas’ manner is impatient, as if he’s always on the verge of looking at his watch, exhaling noisily, and asking, “What’s the bottom line?”—which is why he made such a classic stock-market shark in Wall Street (1987) and why he wouldn’t be the first actor to spring to mind for the cynical but avuncular dope-smoking professor in a film of Michael Chabon’s novel Wonder Boys. He’s pretty good, however. Douglas looks great with his messy hair swept back and a big red scarf draped around his turtleneck, and after his leg gets gnawed on by his mistress’s dog he spends the rest of the picture limping furiously around the snowy Carnegie Mellon campus like a peg-legged pirate. It would be neat to be that kind of novelist: a stoned swashbuckler.

The acerbic, debauched writing professor is a staple of the modern novel, largely because there are so many acerbic, debauched writing professors with nothing else to write about. But the genre doesn’t make it to the screen very often—too bad in the case of David Lodge’s masterful academic farces. Why Wonder Boys has been adapted before Chabon’s more cinematic The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is one of the mysteries of Hollywood. As scripted by Steve Kloves (The Fabulous Baker Boys, 1989), the movie is low on incident, heavy on narration, and unusually faithful to the book, in which the middle-aged Grady Tripp comes to realize that both his humanity and his talent have evaporated over the course of a decade: casualties of dope haze and emotional cowardice. Nebulousness does nothing for a novelist, Grady learns.

I t’s not a great subject for a movie, either, and Kloves’ leisurely, repetitive screenplay snaps into focus only at its most banal—as when Grady’s pregnant mistress (Frances McDormand), who hungers for commitment, announces, “I’m not going to draw you a map, Grady. At times like this, you need to do your own navigating,” or when various characters suggest he stop smoking pot and start making choices. The director, Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, 1997), has made the mistake of giving Wonder Boys a severe, wintry, high-toned look instead of something lighter and scruffier. That look freezes the satire. When Grady’s ripely available student (Katie Holmes) tells him, “I’m not the downy innocent you think I am,” the direction is so heavy that it sounds like bad writing instead of someone talking like a bad writer.

The movie is quite pleasant, though—at least until its Just Say No to Drugs and Yes to Life moralism kicks in. Tobey Maguire plays another of Grady’s writing students—an unsettling mix of insight and charlatanism—with just the right yeasty morbidity. (You know this kid will do anything if he can get a story out of it.) And speaking of Just Say No: Robert Downey Jr. steals the movie as Grady’s manic editor, a man desperate for a best seller as a means of preserving his hedonistic literary-pasha lifestyle. The sad thing about seeing Downey play pleasure-seekers is that he’s so convivial, so full of bonhomie, so infectiously good-humored. I don’t want this man to sober up. On the other hand, I don’t want him to drop dead before he’s 40. Why does Downey have to pass every drug test? Why does Grady have to stop smoking dope altogether to be a great writer? Why can’t so many talented people find a middle ground between abstemiousness and oblivion?