Navel Academy

Britney Spears’ Crossroads is sleazy but plain vanilla; Last Orders is an end-of-life road movie; John Q.’s vigilante becomes a liberal.

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The new Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads (Paramount) is impressive—not as a movie, as a series of brilliantly schizoid marketing calculations. Savvier heads than mine have forged it, tested its plot turns, designed and redesigned its leading lady’s wardrobe and songs, and emerged with something so vanilla yet so transcendentally sleazy that its target audience seems to be pubescent girls and dirty old priests. “Not a girl, not yet a woman” is code for “jailbait that’s not actionable.”

The subject is ostensibly female friendship—it’s the story of three gal-pals (Spears, Zoe Saldana, and Taryn Manning) who become estranged in high school and rediscover one another in the course of a cross-country road trip. And on that level it’s rather sweet, with a soulful plucky-Irish-lass turn from Manning and a strong “You go, girl!” vibe. But there’s a juggling—and jiggling—act running alongside the main scenario that isn’t so progressive. After a brief prologue, the movie segues to its star in her scanties, undulating to a Madonna song while eating a bowl of cereal, as if to say, “teeming with sexual fluids—and also heart-healthy whole grains.” Her soft-core breakfast thing gets disrupted by her big auto-mechanic dad (Dan Aykroyd), who lumbers in to remind her that valedictorians aren’t late for graduation—whereupon she laments her goody-good adolescence, that she never stayed out late or went to a football game. (Hmmm—who was it shaking her navel at the Super Bowl?) Then it’s off to high school, where the camera hugs her butt and surveys her cleavage while characters make fun of her virginity. You’re meant to think, “C’mon, Britney, liberate yourself from this unfashionable corset, these oppressive patriarchal values: Show us your tits!”

Spears doesn’t bare all, of course—the movie is PG-13 (“for sexual content and brief teen drinking”). And I’m bound to say that the less she shows, the more interested we remain. She’s not extraordinarily sexy—I mean, she’s fine, but so are about 5 million other young American women of her age and build. But she’s photographed as if she’s the most erotic object ever to displace the air; and her anatomy is parceled out in small amounts, a flash of undies and butt cheek here, some thigh and navel there, so that we’re reduced to leaning forward for fear of missing something. (Disturbing realization: I am Bob Dole.) Spears’ lack of memorableness might be part of her allure. We need to keep seeing her to remind ourselves what she looks like.

On the basis of this undemanding part, she isn’t a bad actress at all. She’s casual—you don’t catch her striking poses—and her big sobbing scene is rather affecting. Although I don’t know what to make of that rosey-orangey skin (she’s a walking Tequila Sunrise) or those radioactive teeth, she has Heather Locklear’s gift for seeming natural under pounds of peroxide, eye makeup, and lip gloss. Only one thing mars the performance: Whenever she sings, the wily showbiz whore takes over. And that voice—blacker and dirtier than you expect, like Tina Turner on helium—has nothing to do with the character.

The director, Tamra Davis, and the writer, Shondra Rhimes, steer clear of camp in all but a couple of scenes—an achievement, considering the zigs and zags they have to do to keep Britney’s audience happy. The protagonist’s heartthrob (Anson Mount) is presented as a bit of rough trade, a ropy ex-con who allegedly killed someone—but of course when we find out what got him sent up, it’s akin to jaywalking while saving a child from being run over. The screening audience only lost it when the sensitive stud sat down to hear one of Britney’s poems: “I’m not a girl,” she begins solemnly, “not yet a woman.” The shrieks were deafening even before he came up with the idea of setting it to music. “Feels like I’m caught in the middle,” she warbles in the last scene, wiggling that high navel and nearly fellating the mike. And that’s just where her handlers want to keep her.

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“I’m not middle-aged, not yet a codger” could be the characters’ anthem in this week’s other, grander road movie, Last Orders (Sony Pictures Classics)—not a coming-of-age film but a full-circle coming-around, an end-of-life road picture. It’s the story of some 65-ish Cockney blokes (Bob Hoskins, David Hemmings, and Tom Courtenay) who drive east from London to the oceanside town of Margate to scatter the ashes of their lifelong mate (Michael Caine), their journey broken up with stops at a Chatham war memorial (they fought in North Africa in World War II), the cathedral at Canterbury, and several pubs; it’s also broken up by their memories, which become more wrenching as they ingest more booze, move further back in time, and draw closer to their final goodbyes. This is a road movie to—if I may borrow a phrase from a lesser movie—the places in the heart.

The film marks the triumphant return of the great Aussie director Fred Schepisi, whose last fully realized work was the thrilling 1993 adaptation of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation. Schepisi has taken a page out of Guare. Graham Swift’s novel is largely a succession of inner monologues; Schepisi (who did the screenplay) has broken them up and given the film a whirligig syntax so that the point of view flows from one character to the next—a raft that travels on a whitewater river of emotion. From a narrative standpoint not a lot happens, but Schepisi’s camera is dynamic, weaving in and out of the action and making the inner journey seem 10 times more momentous than the outer one. By the time we arrive at the freezing, off-season Margate, the trajectory of these men’s lives—as well as the lives of the dead man’s widow (Helen Mirren) and adopted son (Ray Winstone, the marvelous star of last year’s Sexy Beast)—lies open before us, and their faces have become as easy to read as our own. The more sodden the characters get, the more lucid Last Orders becomes.

The actors aren’t playing themselves, but several of them are from the same East End neighborhood as their characters; they’re playing the people with whom they grew up. That must account for how simultaneously energized and relaxed they seem. It’s the perfect state in which to inhabit these characters, who aren’t natural emoters—their feelings are constantly being muzzled or leaking out or exploding. The tragedy of the dead man’s life is that he could never bring himself to acknowledge the existence of a severely retarded daughter; the beauty of Caine’s performance (yet another in a long line of masterpieces) is how he shows the toll that this willed obliviousness has taken by the way he holds his body, his pint—and his emotions. His buddies are scattering the ashes of an unrealized man. But none of them will go confidently, contentedly into that good night. The soul of Last Orders is in the twitching eyebrows of Hemmings as he staggers around in a stupor; in Hoskins’ sad, loving eyes; in the way that Mirren (in a bravely low-key performance) holds her head as if in eternal bereavement.

Some viewers might find Schepisi’s touch remote: He’s a proud, stubbornly principled director; he doesn’t always go for the milking close-up. But I loved seeing his sharp, widescreen canvas again, his people never viewed in isolation but in the context of their time and place. Every face in the frame is clear—hell, every tap handle in the frame is clear. Last Orders shows the dying tremors of a generation, and you might feel as if you can see every molecule, every atom give up the ghost.

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In last week’s New York Times“Arts and Leisure” section, I scratched the surface of the vigilante genre, focusing mostly on Collateral Damage, which combines two right-wing strains: the “you killed my wife and child and now you must die” motif and the “government won’t let us fight so it’s back to ‘Nam our way” motif. But the vigilante is a malleable figure. He (or she) might use violent, coercive means, but this can easily be for liberal ends. Thus, John Q. (New Line Cinema)—a commercial for universal health care in which a kind, gentle Everyman (Denzel Washington) is forced to take a hospital hostage to secure a heart transplant for his cute, Gary Coleman-esque son. Needless to say, he becomes a populist hero to everyone but the police chief and his SWAT team.

What can a critic say? You’ll hate the cold, skinny white bitch (Anne Heche) who tells John and his wife (Kimberly Elise) that the cost of the transplant is “prohibitively expensive” and that they should start thinking about “quality of life.” You’ll hate the surgeon (James Woods) who won’t lift a finger to help even though he clearly knows the difference between right and wrong. You’ll want to cheer when John produces a gun and announces that there will be “Free health care for everyone!” You might—although this is the film’s most garish twist—choke back tears when John decides that, in the absence of a donor, he’ll blow his own brains out on the operating table so that his son can have a heart. Denzel Washington is so powerfully earnest an actor that you never want to laugh at him—even when you ought to be in stitches.

I don’t have a problem with John Q.’s depiction of despair in the face of insurance companies’ inflexibility. But I do think the fairy-tale benefits of hostage-taking are a tad exaggerated. In the course of our hero’s taking over a hospital, no innocent people are killed or injured—no patient even wants for medical treatment. A truly socially responsible movie would not suggest that vigilantism isn’t hazardous to your health.