A Farce With Force

The Triumph of Love, a midsummer romantic cross-dressing romp; Angelina Jolie sleepwalks through Life or Something Like It; The Salton Sea is drug-noir hooey.

Clare Peploe’s adaptation of Marivaux’s 1732 comedy The Triumph of Love (Paramount Classics) juggles the language of theater and cinema more buoyantly than anything since Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute (1975). The play itself isn’t the thing, but it will do: A midsummer romantic cross-dressing romp, its satiric target is fear of feeling, its aim the conciliation of reason and emotion, its most obvious antecedent As You Like It. It begins as an orphaned princess (Mira Sorvino) spies Agis (Jay Rodan), the son of the king her father usurped—the rightful heir to the throne and a world-class hunk to boot. Watching him emerge from a lake in his Adonis-like splendor, she longs for a marriage that would restore the natural order. But to win his affections she must disguise herself, to conceal not only her identity (the youth has been raised to despise her) but her gender. For Agis has been confined to the estate of a rationalist philosopher called Hermocrates (Ben Kingsley) and is beyond the reach of hated females—the notable exception being Hermocrates’ spinsterish sister Leontine (Fiona Shaw), who has no feminine wiles to speak of. In the course of the play (which is brief, the so-called classical unities in force), the princess will delay her eviction by furiously wooing Hermocrates as a woman and Leontine as a man—until such time as she can befriend Agis (as a man) and convince him (as a woman) of the depth and the rightness of her love.

Peploe, who is married to Bernardo Bertolucci (she wrote Besieged,1998, and directed a first-rate giddy romantic comedy called High Season, 1987), reportedly saw the play on stage and was inspired to bring it to the screen. In the finished film her love of cinema fairly dances with her love of theater—especially summertime, al fresco theater, with audiences watching in manicured parks or on the grounds of large estates. Employing a hand-held, 16 mm camera, she finds the perfect perspective for every scene: Now she pulls back and the actors play it big so you can feel their relish for showy theatrical artifice; now she comes in close and cuts and cuts again, the jump-cuts creating a nervous intimacy possible only in movies. It shouldn’t work—what’s the French New Wave doing in the commedia dell’arte?—but she always cuts at the right instant so that the emotions become more concentrated. Mozart is in the air (and on the soundtrack), and there is something in Peploe’s camerawork that suggests both the composer’s exquisite formality and his lightning waggishness; meanwhile, the real-time excitement of the theater goes hand-in-glove with the happy thought that one can savor these performances again and again.

Who would have thought that Mira Sorvino could look like a classically trained actress? She’s blithely stylized, with a delicious, skippy pertness, and when she strikes a classical suitor’s pose, those legs go on forever. All pretty teeth and doe eyes, she gets in close, too close, to Fiona Shaw, whose breathless skittishness is suddenly in sync with Peploe’s jump-cuts. We are suddenly in farce heaven, made more enchanted by Peploe’s absurdist punch line: Rushing flushed from the young “man’s” presence, Leontine comes face to face with a modern-dress audience watching expectantly. It makes no sense on any level—hers or ours—and it is utterly, sublimely funny: the universe’s ultimate revenge.

Shaw and Kingsley understand the secret of the greatest commedia stooge acting: Play your scenes as if they’re high tragedy, so that every situation has more weight than it can bear, so that laughter is the audience’s only release. To watch the stoic Kingsley struggle with the sudden onrush of romantic longing—he blinks, mortified, frozen in indecision, his bald head erect, his physiognomy like a Roman general’s appended with a pair of clown ears—is to feel the sibling closeness of farce and tragedy. The Triumph of Love sets you nearer than theater permits—and further back than most movies dare. A magic vantage.

Angelina Jolie has made a lot of wiggy comments to the press; and while it’s unseemly to speculate on her sanity, it’s fair, I think, to suggest that much of her appeal comes from that hint of mad-animal chaos lurking not too far under the surface. Her Gia, in the movie of that name, was barely contained by clothing, her Lisa in Girl, Interrupted (1999) one of the movies’ most magnetic sexy beasts. Even her regal tomb-raider Lara Croft carried a suggestion of something filthy and subversive. I can’t imagine what attracted her to the protagonist of Life or Something Like It (20th Century Fox), Lanie Kerrigan—a brittle, steely platinum blonde who dreams of marrying a rich jock and being the hostess of a network morning talk show, and who is described as laboring, every moment of her life, to project “the right image.” The Loni Anderson look doesn’t suit her features (this is the first time she has been less than gorgeous on screen), and her eyes are glazed, as if she’s trying to dampen her brilliance.

The movie’s dumb but on some level irresistible hook is that her character learns, from a mad “prophet” named Jack (Tony Shalhoub), that she’s going to die in a week, and since every one of his other predictions come true (so much so that it’s a wonder the government doesn’t swoop down and dissect his brain), Lanie begins to rethink the foundations of her life. She eats junk food, shows up drunk for work, tries to rekindle her relationships with her father and her icy sister, and inches closer to the laid-back cameraman (Edward Byrnes) who represents all that’s incorruptible. Life or Something Like It has some good, tart romantic banter that lifts it above the Lifetime class, but key confrontations are poorly directed, and the conception is finally just too fraudulent to endure. As in last year’s Sweet November, the explicit message—abandon the fast-track treadmill for the looseness and spontaneity of real life—is relentlessly undermined by the machine-tooled Hollywood narrative, the cinematic equivalent of the schlocky morning show we’re taught is so unworthy of Lanie’s aspirations. This mad prophet says it will die in a week.

Set in the world of methamphetamine addicts, The Salton Sea (Warner Bros.) is drug noir. The syntax is by turns brusque and slurry, with hardboiled nihilist narration by the seemingly doomed protagonist (Val Kilmer), a “tweaker” who rats out his dealers to a couple of thuggish narcs and pines for the days when he blew a soulful trumpet on a beach next to a beautiful woman. Drug noir can be exciting—even a dud like Blow took storytelling chances—but about midway through the movie (directed by D.J. Caruso from a script by Tony Gayton) you start to sense it’s going in a different and more ho-hum direction than, say, Requiem for a Dream. More should not be revealed: Let’s just say that in spite of its malignant sun-scorched palette, absurdist visions, and narrative loop the loops, the picture looks in hindsight like the same old vigilante crap. The good news is that Kilmer, a smart, nervy actor who looked to be down for the count—the victim, some have suggested, of his own untenable temperament—is in there working hard and giving a real performance. He doesn’t make the movie worth seeing, but he makes me hope to see him again.