Name That Toon

When Sinclair Lewis received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, one bemused onlooker, George Bernard Shaw -- a winner of the same award in 1925 -- made the following observation: "I have defined the hundred percent American as ninety-nine percent an idiot." No doubt Shaw's scintillating wit would be sorely tested to comment on American movies in the latter half of the Twentieth Century. Contemporary cinema -- good or bad -- that deals with the human condition is rare in these parts: on the screen, fantasy begets fantasy with a frequency comparable to inner-city homicides and jerkwater sex crimes. Escapism has become a modus vivendi in a popular art form that, from its earliest inception, endeavored to enhance reality rather than supplant it. Meanwhile, contemporary audiences savor their intellectual diet -- the equivalent of Coke, Goobers, and Sweet Tarts -- as a gourmand would a dinner at the Moulin des Mougins in the South of France. Perhaps the Irish critic's one percent has finally given way.

Consider the first of two fantasy-adventure features that opened last week, Prelude to a Kiss. As has become the norm in material-hungry Hollywood, the film was originally a successful play by Craig Lucas in New York, with Alec Baldwin in the lead role of Peter Hoskins, a young man who marries the woman of his dreams, only to have her soul enter the decrepit body of an ailing old man who makes an unsolicited appearance at their wedding. The plot has Peter attempting to return the souls back to their respective hosts so that he can live happily ever after with his bride. This adaption (also by Lucas) is directed by Norman Rene, whose AIDS drama Longtime Companion looms like Dostoyevsky beside this run-of-the-mill romance fluff. It's also the latest member of an interminable assembly of out-of-body spectacles (such as, to name two, All of Me and Ghost). The action has been expanded for the screen, with the setting moved from New York to Chicago (after a strike forced production away from the Big Apple).

I've never been an admirer of Alec Baldwin, either on film or stage. (I saw him in an off-Broadway production of Joe Orton's Loot in the Eighties, and he had about as much fizz as a glass of Evian.) His peculiar brand of low-rent manliness can doubtless set a woman's heart on fire, much the way Clark Gable did in the Thirties. But Baldwin, who reprises his stage performance in Prelude to a Kiss, cannot act without deeply incriminating himself. The role of Peter requires a subtle sense of existential displacement, a bottom-of-the-barrel melancholy, that Baldwin sketches but doesn't inhabit. When he cries at the loss of his symbiotic other half, he looks as foolish as Dudley Moore harking for a highball.

Baldwin gets little help from Meg Ryan, who plays his wife, Rita, or from the veteran stage actor playing the unnamed old man, Sydney Walker. Ryan's apple-pie, cheerleaderish face communicates one single emotion -- self-satisfaction. Blond and pert as she is, Ryan comes to life only when playing Rita after the old man's soul has entered her body. Meg is as sweet and forgettable as a cherry soda.

As for the 71-year-old Walker, his singular contribution is an appearance that authentically reproduces the ashen look of rigor mortis on a corpse bound for the freezer. The one supposedly controversial scene, where Peter kisses the grandpa full on the lips, drew a sustained "Eeeeewwww" from the audience at the screening I attended. But I suspect this uniform expression of disgust was emitted not because two men were smooching, but for fear of the beefy Baldwin's lips turning gray after pecking the old boy's putrid flesh. (Why wasn't Barnard Hughes, the oldster in the theater version, or another character actor of similar caliber, cast instead?) Prelude to a Kiss is dull, boneheaded entertainment, nothing more.

Much more ambitious and exciting, though by no means perfect, is the return of animator Ralph Bakshi and his new film, Cool World. Funkier in outline than the other film in recent memory to combine live action with animation -- namely Robert Zemeckis's Who Framed Roger Rabbit? -- Bakshi's virtuosic array of phantasmagorical imagery sets your pulse racing over 100 beats per minute, a good thing after the snail-paced Prelude. But the tempo is unrelenting -- Bakshi doesn't let up -- which ultimately spoils the initial heart-pounding energy of the cartoon film.

Carl Jung would have been delighted by the premise of this animated ambush: An incarcerated illustrator (Gabriel Byrne) believes he has invented a two-dimensional cartoon world and becomes submerged in it, only to find that he has tapped into his own subconscious. Fantasy and reality converge throughout different time spans -- Cool World begins in 1945 and swiftly progresses to 1992 -- and the human and cartoon worlds play off each other like a pair of high-wire acrobats. In the real world humans are depicted as cartoon junkies, while the inhabitants -- the doodles -- of Cool World are itching to join the Noids (as in humanoids). Appropriately, Cool World points to Las Vegas for a model of the human metropolis, and a preternaturally dark and anthropomorphic melange of Vegas and New York for the toon.

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