The Emperor’s New Groove
dir.: Mark Dindal
G, 100 min.
Opening Friday at area theaters
The Family Man
dir.: Brett Ratner
PG-13, approx. 120 min.
Opening Dec. 22 at area theaters
Anyone who was paying attention on Nov. 7 had to notice something interesting about the colors on the electoral map. Al Gore won the popular vote and stayed close in the count of electors primarily due to the blue states on the edges of the country, while the physical bulk of the U.S. sported a near-seamless spread of red. That same division exists in the world of show business. Folks in the blue states produce entertainment for the folks in the red states, and even though in some ways these two groups have different value systems, red staters have long been captivated by the glamorous goings-on in the land of blue.
Meanwhile, the blue staters periodically display a similar fascination (and confusion) about what the reds are up to. This holiday season there are two big-studio filmsDisney’s The Emperor’s New Groove and Universal’s The Family Manabout wealthy egocentrics forced to spend some time with the lumpen proletariat and thereby to learn what life’s really about. In a way, movies like these represent a clever Hollywood formula: Congratulate hardworking Middle Americans on their innate goodness and then sit back and count the money. But there’s also a flipside to that, as well-heeled filmmakers castigate their own venality while taking shallow pride in their ability to recognize their flaws.
The Disney film features the voice of David Spade as Kuzco, the self-centered young emperor of an ancient South American jungle kingdom. When a scheming adviser named Yzma (Eartha Kitt) uses a potion to change Kuzco into a llama, the exiled ruler has to team up with big-hearted peasant Pacha (John Goodman) to get back his human form and his throne.
The Emperor’s New Groove represents a slightly new approach for Disney. No one breaks into song (save for the opening and closing theme), and the humor is based on a barrage of sight gags, broken up by odd bits of intentionally awkward exchanges between characters. The style is inspired by Mad magazine, the Marx Brothers, and Seinfeld, and not surprisingly, the best character in the film is Yzma’s dim servant Kronk, voiced by Seinfeld alum Patrick Warburton, who has the proper rhythm to play this kind of self-conscious comedy.
But despite some funny moments, the picture doesn’t exactly shine brightly. Although lushly animated as always, the writing and the action of this expensive Disney feature aren’t much better than a cheaply produced Cartoon Network original like Dexter’s Laboratory or Cow & Chickenin fact, the TV shows may be better, because they don’t seem to be trying so hard. This Emperor isn’t only overbearing, it’s fairly heartless, despite Kuzco’s eventual lesson that there’s no “llama” in “team.” Maybe that’s because the message under the message is that mean people can change, whereas ugly people like Yzma are rotten to the bone. Still, the film is likely to do very well, thanks to a snappy pace and loads of slapstick; kids especially will respond enthusiastically to the bratty nose-thumbing.
The Family Man should do well too and may become a Yuletide perennial, despite some gratuitous sex that pushes its rating to a pointless PG-13. Nicolas Cage stars as Jack Campbell, a millionaire Wall Street executive who wakes up on Christmas morning to find that he’s living in Teaneck, N.J., married to college sweetheart Kate (Tea Leoni), raising two kids, and working as a tire salesman. A mysterious stranger (Don Cheadle) explains that this is “a glimpse” of what his life would’ve been like if he had stayed with Kate rather than pursuing his career.
Brett Ratner directs, from a script by David Diamond and David Weissman that is similar to (though clearly not cribbed from) Rachel Griffiths’ Australian film Me Myself I. The key difference is that the Griffiths vehicle was much more subtle, with its life-switching protagonist reveling in her ability to master domestic life while cursing its limitations. The Family Man, by contrast, is pretty pat in its assessment of careerists and suburbanites. Even though Teaneck is barely an hour’s drive from New York City, no one Jack encounters there seems to have the slightest interest in culture or refinement; it’s all bowling and retail. The only unexpected wrinkle the filmmakers bring is that the NYC version of Jack is notas would be the norm for this sort of storya miserable jerk. Even before his “glimpse,” he seems to be zestfully enjoying himself.
Give credit partly to Cage, who steps out from behind his shtick at times during the movie, showing a real complexity of feelings about his character’s odd turn of events. Mostly, he’s befuddled by his attraction to his old-flame-turned-wifean attraction that makes sense, given the superb performance by Leoni, who reacts to her husband’s sudden strangeness with a lovely smile and the glow of inner peace. The charisma of the two leadsand a surprisingly careful control of tone and pace by Ratnermakes up for the predictability of the story and its simultaneously dreary and starry-eyed take on working-class life. And shameless or not, this paean to home and hearth does have an emotional pull, especially when Jack realizes that he may wake up one day and be back in his old life.
Of course, both The Emperor’s New Groove and The Family Man do restore order in the end, with their heroes still rich and powerful, but changed by their adventures. This completes the fantasy for both the audience and the filmmakers, as each gets to spend a little time in the worlds of privilege and of family warmth, respectively. Happy endings in American movies rarely stop at mere happiness; having a stack of cash is the dressing on the side. That’s the green line that surrounds both the reds and the blues.
Delightful, delovely, Deneuve
Some movies are pleasurable simply because they allow a viewer to spend time in the company of interesting people. One such movie was last year’s unjustly overlooked The School of Flesh, which offered the pleasure of following pragmatic fashion designer Isabelle Huppert as she negotiatedliterallyan affair with a manipulative hustler half her age. Another is Place Vendôme, a cool, elegant French thriller that shrewdly downplays its twists and turns to focus on its calculating characters.
At its center is Marianne Malivert (Catherine Deneuve), the dissolute alcoholic wife of a diamond merchant in the Place Vendôme, the center of the Parisian jewel trade. Marianne has bounced in and out of rehab so many times that a character calls detox “her second home,” and she’s snubbed by her husband’s associatesperhaps because she’s given to public binges, going so far as to down the discarded drinks left on other tables. She’s so polluted, and so desperately unhappy, that she fails to notice her husband’s mounting panic, which ends abruptly in his death. But he leaves her with a hidden treasure: a cache of priceless diamonds.
The ice, of course, is hot, and the gems make Marianne the target of shady profiteers before her husband’s body is even cold. In a more obvious suspenser, the heroine would try to uncover the diamonds’ true owner, and the unraveling of the mystery would take over the movie. Instead, Marianne clears away some (but not all) of her boozy haze and decides to take over her husband’s business, infuriating his conniving brother (François Berléand). The director, actress Nicole Garcia, follows Marianne as she starts to regain her footing, relying on instincts of the trade she’d long suppressed.
The movie’s tensionand pleasurecomes from watching Marianne get into situations where she’s less and less sure of herself. Some of these she handles with aplomb, like a run-in with a punky client whose demeanor suddenly turns sinister. But in personal matters she’s believably impulsive and self-destructive, and she isn’t helped by the shadowy motives of the people closest to her, including her husband’s former mistress, Natalie (Emmanuelle Seigner from Roman Polanski’s recent films), and the repo man who’s obsessed with her, Jean-Pierre (Jean-Pierre Bacri). By the end, as Marianne gets a chance to settle a bitter old score, every main character is scheming under a secret agenda.
Yet even when the plotting and the exotic backdrop of international intrigue give the movie the glossy feel of a 1960s European potboiler, Place Vendôme is primarily a character study, and here the casting of the glorious Deneuve really pays off. She now has a spark of experience and ravaged knowingness that she lacked in her dazzling youth, and it makes her seem more human, even sexier. As Marianne starts to warm to the high-stakes gamesmanship of the diamond trade, shaking off her addiction and frailty, she doesn’t just metamorphose into a more assured human being: She takes on the kind of starpower younger actresses just can’t muster. In other words, she turns into Catherine Deneuve, and it’s worth the ticket price just to see Marianne in a train-car poker game dangling a cigarette from her lip with insouciant command, as both the actress and the character revel for the moment in being cool as hell. Place Vendôme opens Friday for a one-week run at the Belcourt.
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