Although the theatrical release of Adrian Lyne’s beleaguered Lolita has by this time as much cultural significance as another post-Maris home run, it’d be wise to cast a cold eye on this baby, sans the cluttering context of its year in limbo, the apprehension of stateside distributors, the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996, the franc-fed budget ($58 million!), the imagined picket lines, the comparison to Kubrick’s version, the NC-17 sex scenes left on the cutting-room floor. Circumstances are, after all, yesterday’s entertainment-page filler; in a year, we’ll have only the movie to be bored by. There’s precious few yucks, for one thing, but you can’t say you’re surprised that the astonishingly humorless Lyne hadn’t noticed or cared that the Nabokov original is a droll comedy of errors first and a self-pitying romantic tragedy second. (The funniest thing in Lyne’s oeuvre is the fact that Michael Douglas needed Glenn Close to tell him he had a golf-ball-sized dollop of cream cheese on his nose in Fatal Attraction.)
Shot too gorgeously to be amusing in any event, Lolita attempts moments of light farce, encouraging the monstrously awkward Melanie Griffith and the up-for-anything Dominique Swain to deport themselves like actors in a car commercial, but these scenes have the grace of gunshot ducks. Lyne’s idea of Nabokovian wit is having Swain snap her gum, and then cutting to Jeremy Irons’s Humbert grinning in enraptured embarrassment.
Irons occasionally manages a funny bit of fumbling, and his handling of the Humbertian narration is adept. But it’s Lyne’s particular style of post-’80s-TV-ad filmmaking that fattens this movie for the chopping block. Outside of the lovely credit sequence, scored by Ennio Morricone with bars right out of Once Upon a Time in America and featuring the bloodied Humbert driving semiconsciously down a country road, Lolita is shot and cut with a gilt-edged sledge. When Quilty (Frank Langella) makes his ominous appearance on the hotel porch, Lyne cuts busily between him, Irons, and giant moths bursting preposterously into flame around an anachronistic bug zapper as if it were a shoot-out. When Humbert visits a pregnant Lo late in the tale, Lyne makes sure Swain blocks the doorway with her belly so Irons will have to squeeze shakily through, milking the silly and unrealistic moment by cutting to three or four angles. The assassination of Quilty is a veritable atrocity of overlighting, punctuation cuts, and grotesque theatrics. Every scene in the film is shaped with the same cement-heavy hand.
In the tradition of Spielberg-era hacks, Lyne doesn’t strive to tell a story so much as lock a roped ring into your nose and pull. (Salacious as all get-out, Lyne makes the big mistake of bending over backward making Lo sensual and alluring—even though Humbert has detailed to us in the narration how “nymphets” are only discernible to those cursed with a yen for jailbait.) It’s easy to miss Lyne’s traffic-cop style when he’s trucking in pulpy paranoia and romantic tosh, but taking on Nabokov makes him look like the TV-spot handyman he obviously remains.