100 Years of Solitude

Zemeckis's facility at F/X management is a given and the plane's crack-up is impressively visceral—the climax of Titanic compressed into 10 harrowing minutes of plunging vessels and flaming seas. Nor does the pummeling stop once Hanks is washed up on the white-sand beach of his personal Club Med. Island life is a baffling, bloody ordeal complicated by unsmashable coconuts and the bad tooth throbbing in the survivor's head like a time bomb. While Robinson Crusoe was a paean to the practical middle-class virtues that allowed its industrious hero (and the nation he represents) to re-create civilization out of nothingness, Cast Away is a far less triumphalist peek into the nothingness at the heart of civilization.

Fortunately, a few indestructible FedEx boxes wash ashore—one containing an apparently useless volleyball that, as soon as Hanks paints a face on its surface, becomes his combined pal, pet, and pagan idol. In another bit of product placement, Hanks calls the ball by its trade name: Wilson. Although Cast Away is very much Hanks's extreme everyman solo, his inanimate Man Friday deserves recognition as one of the year's best supporting actors. At the very least, Wilson gives the star a pretext for the movie's most emotionally wrenching scene. Alone with this absurd self-projection, Hanks spends four years on his island before building a getaway raft. The shot in which he looks back at his verdant prison, having arduously paddled free into the open ocean, is pure science fiction: He's blasted out into space, accompanied by his sidekick, Wilson.

The raft sequence has intimations of 2001 that don't stop even after Hanks returns to civilization (on a plane of total solitude) to hear how the "FedEx family" lost five of its "sons" and endures a bad-beyond-belief meeting with his dentist. I was amazed at the depth of alienation with which Zemeckis infused these scenes. But as if frightened at having conjured up the least compromising, bleakest vision of the human condition in any Hollywood A-picture since Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life, Zemeckis casts it away with pumped-up affirmation. God moves in mysterious ways. It's a wonderful life after all.

A feast of small sensations: Anderson and Stoltz in The House of Mirth
photo: Jaap Buitendijk
A feast of small sensations: Anderson and Stoltz in The House of Mirth


The House of Mirth
Written and directed by Terence Davies, from the novel by Edith Wharton
A Sony Pictures Classics release
Paris Theatre
Opens December 22

Cast Away
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by William Broyles Jr.
A Twentieth Century Fox release
Opens December 22

O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Directed by Joel Coen
Written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
A Touchstone release
Opens December 22

For the unadulterated Olympian perspective, look to the Coen brothers. In Fargo and The Big Lebowski, these ferociously clever siblings took the risk of investing in a character to whom they did not feel absolutely superior. That strategy is abandoned in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a protracted Little Moron joke in which three white idiots (George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson) escape from a chain gang into the wilds of late-'30s Mississippi. As the filmmakers take pains to point out, their plot occasionally intersects with The Odyssey—Clooney plays one of the few Southerners since the Civil War to be named Ulysses. The unwieldy title, however, alludes to the "serious" movie within the movie in Sullivan's Travels. It's a jab at anyone who expects the Coens to ever be less than facetious.

Basically, O Brother warms up a tepid gumbo of Deep South clichés: brainless Gomers, zombie Baptists, the colored boy who sells his soul to the devil to play the blues, the loudmouthed bank robber who turns out to be Baby Face Nelson. The art direction is impeccable, but this is a pop-up book that I was impatient to slam. Scampering through an ensemble whose acting is confined largely to pulling funny faces, Clooney has the oily charm of middle-period Burt Reynolds. An excellent, mainly traditional bluegrass score is placed at the service of the three stooges, who turn out to be great natural entertainers. (They sold their soul to the Coens.) Replete with Homer and Jethro two-stepping and Hee Haw high-kicks, music triumphs over racism—if not rampant rube-baiting.

The epitome of the Coens' po'mo' puppet show is placing the high mournful sound of Ralph Stanley's "Oh Death" in the mouth of a murderous KKK kleagle. In terms of nihilistic mix-and-match, I'd love to see Spike Lee make a mess of this fastidiously smug scenario even more than I'd enjoy watching the Coens impose their cruel order on the chaos of Bamboozled.

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