Slack Magic


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is less a $120 million movie than an expensive, elaborately planned military operation. Caution is the watchword, and securing territory the imperative—victory achieved by simply eliminating defeat. There’s a palpable avoidance of risk as this new mythology is wheeled gingerly into the marketplace and carefully positioned to zap your pre-sold brain.

Anticipating many returns on their investment—sorcerer’s stone, indeed!—Harry Potter‘s corporate producers have obviously decided to let J.K. Rowling’s kid-lit phenomenon be itself or rather, the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation. Eccentric visionary Tim Burton is not the man AOL Time Warner wanted for this job; the Home Alone king Chris Columbus will do just fine, especially since his early credits include the screenplay for the Spielberg-produced pre-teen adventure The Goonies.

The script, by Steve Kloves, treads lightly over Harry’s unhappy childhood in a little room under the stairs, an orphan persecuted by his horrid uncle and aunt and their fat son. At age 11, Harry is rescued from these odious muggles (non-magical humans) by a garrulous ogre, Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane). Attaching a curly tail to Harry’s cousin, Rubeus whisks the boy to an enchanted shopping mall in a medieval theme park behind the facade of contemporary London—the first of several kid crowd pleasers predicated on the consumption of magic toys and candy.

Then it’s off to be the wizard, studying magic at the world’s grooviest educational institution, albeit one that has impressed some members of the Christian right as satanic—the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Exotic? Perhaps. An alien, vaguely Victorian class structure seems to be in effect at Hogwarts, although to judge from the heaping bowls of french fries, greasy chicken wings, and corn on the cob available for dinner, the place must be catered by KFC. In addition to the students—Brit tykes with a background smatter of ethnic diversity—the school is populated by a raft of entertaining spirits and replete with all manner of secret passages and forbidden zones.

Marked since infancy with a scar inflicted by the evil wizard Voldemort, who murdered his parents, Harry (self-contained Daniel Radcliffe) thrives at Hogwarts—despite the resentment of snobby upperclassmen with French-sounding surnames. Harry’s associates might have been plucked from the peanut gallery—the wide-eyed, red-haired Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and bossy know-it-all Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), whom Harry saves from a troll bearing a family resemblance to DreamWorks’ Shrek. In keeping with the genteel aura, the adult cast suggests a West End dragnet. Fiona Shaw, John Cleese, and John Hurt have their cameos early; Hogwarts is staffed by the likes of Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Ian Hart, Zoë Wanamaker, and Alan Rickman. (Harris is an intolerable old hairball, but Rickman, as always, brings a welcome sneer to the proceedings; the others are distinguished mainly by their coiffures.)

A sepia overlay aside, Harry Potter has no particular look, but Columbus does manage to integrate the vast variety of child-friendly visual effects: magic mirrors, dragon eggs, cloaks of invisibility, and broomsticks that not only fly but buck and snort like rodeo broncos. The countless birds, cats, and toads that inhabit Hogwarts are amply naturalistic. The least convincing member of the menagerie is the dour digital centaur who materializes in the Dark Forest to lend Harry a helping hoof.

Is the movie true to the spirit of the book? Having never cracked a Harry Potter tome, and thus being a hopeless muggle, I can’t say. (Ask me next month about The Lord of the Rings.) It does seem as though the Harry Potter mythos has skillfully drawn on the extensive corpus of British children’s books, borrowing elements from Through the Looking Glass, The Sword in the Stone, Mary Poppins, and The Chronicles of Narnia, to name a few. Enlivened by the occasional snot- or drool-based gag, the narrative line is largely predictable and comfortingly easy to follow—although John Williams’s emphatic score clashes with the tone of British understatement.

Solid but uninspired, Harry lacks brio. It’s respectable and a bit dull. I can’t say it made me yearn for my own sense of childhood wonder, but speaking as an adult, it did stir up some suppressed memories. I never thought I’d feel nostalgic for the coercive go-go vulgarity of Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Empire Strikes Back.

The four comedies written and directed by brothers Bobby and Peter Farrelly have staked out a particular territory somewhere between yuks and yucks. Shallow Hal, their latest, is not only light on laughs but discomfitingly didactic in its disgust. A reverse ugly-duckling fable, this sweetly grotesque comedy is relentlessly devoted to the notion that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Told by his dying father (a minister no less) to find himself “a classic beauty with a perfect ass . . . hot young tail is what it’s about,” young Hal grows up into an avid would-be modelizer (Jack Black), introduced dancing frantically around a club, doggedly trying to get next to the most gorgeous women in the place. Hal’s obsession with physical appearance is echoed by his even creepier buddy (Jason Alexander, under a toupee that seems to have been cultivated in a petri dish) and, in keeping with the movie’s inspirational tone, reproached by the cheerful extroversion of another pal who, because of a neurological disorder, perambulates through life on all fours (Rene Kirby, born with spina bifida).

Hal’s indoctrinated wish for a perfect woman is granted when he’s hypnotized by a handy self-help guru to see people—mainly women—for their “inner beauty.” Thus, 300-pound chair-collapser Rosemary Shanahan looks to Hal like a bodacious Gwyneth Paltrow. The movie’s moral—we’re all programmed to admire arbitrary physical ideals—is demonstrated as much by the “normal” Paltrow’s seemingly enhanced booty as by the fat suit she periodically wears. (Encased in the latter, the actress suggests a pretty Jabba the Hutt.) A former Peace Corps volunteer, Rosemary not only works with hospitalized children but, in a necessary plot complication, turns out to be the boss’s daughter.

It’s fun to watch Paltrow treat the role of Rosemary as an Actors Studio exercise, delicately piloting her nonexistent bulk through the world. Indeed, the movie’s most interesting reversal has a succession of total babes blossom with geeky pleasure under the dubious light of Hal’s attentions. Black, a tubby wise guy, doesn’t bring much more to the role than a cross-eyed scrunch; Shallow Hal might have been helped by the presence of Jim Carrey, although Carrey’s manic absence of sincerity would have transmuted the movie’s correct attitude into something more carnivalesque.

Basically a one-joke affair, Shallow Hal suffers from indifferent craft and excessive length, particularly since it has already given up its best sight gags—involving canoes and swimming pools—in the trailers. Attempting anti-entertainment, the movie comes across as a lecture for restless children, ultimately rewarding the audience with a heartwarming, blatantly fake Rocky-esque conclusion.

Revived at Film Forum in a new 35mm print, Jacques Demy’s 1961 Lola is a benign Blue Angel, in which the eponymous cabaret chanteuse and inadvertent heartbreaker (Anouk Aimée) waits patiently for the lover who abandoned her seven years before.

Demy’s insouciant first feature—shot by Raoul Coutard in black-and-white Cinema-scope in Demy’s hometown of Nantes—is also his most New Wave. Dedicated to Max Ophüls, Lola begins more or less where the more butch Bob le Flambeur ends, with a white Cadillac convertible parked on a French beach. American sailors roam through the port (seemingly played by French actors speaking phonetic English) and a sad young man, just fired from his boring job, seeks solace in an obscure Mark Robson movie with an aging Gary Cooper. This fondness for fantasy America extends to Lola‘s heroine. Aimée’s romantic character may be named for Marlene Dietrich’s femme fatale (and look like a ripe Jacqueline Kennedy), but basically she’s playing Marilyn Monroe in River of No Return or Bus Stop—at once brazen and vulnerable, full of breathy chatter and giggly innocence. “There’s a bit of happiness in simply wanting happiness,” she explains.

In between café blah-blah and wistful set pieces, Lola toys with a blatantly underdeveloped criminal subplot, but Demy is far more interested in evoking the excitement of first love and old movies than orchestrating a shoot-’em-up. The sailors on leave have their own On the Town moves and Michel Legrand’s score bubbles up under the most banal interactions. Like a Hollywood fairy tale, Lola is always threatening to turn into a musical. Its edge as a film comes from the fact that it never quite does.