I Lost It at the Multiplex

The malling of American cinema has left audiences with little choice but to take their Prozac and like it

It's commonplace to say that the sexual revolution killed movie romance. And it's true that to cook up a specific kind of erotic souffle, sex must be postponed for a span that goes beyond contemporary expectations; the art-house success of the uniformly mediocre Jane Austen adaptions depends on their delayed-gratification plots. But the history of film is studded with movies that manage to be frank and funny and swoony, from Trouble in Paradise to Shampoo to Henry & June. Contemporary filmmakers should be figuring out how to create new kinds of comedy from the ways coupling, courtship, and commitment get all mixed up (the way Ron Shelton does in Bull Durham and Tin Cup); instead, they go traditional and end up tying themselves into knots. Last year's likable fizzle One Fine Day tried so hard to express the tensions of single working mothers and every-other-weekend dads (even those who look like Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney) that frenzy overtook amorous feeling. When Julia Roberts attempts to undermine a rival by e-mail in My Best Friend's Wedding, or Jennifer Aniston concocts an entire false history (that comes true) in Picture Perfect, the filmmakers spend their time delaying gratification -- sometimes indefinitely. Their movies are all interruptus, no coitus.

While filmmakers celebrate family life, they remain transparently ambivalent about it. Building a home in the movies these days involves some form of emotional extortion, especially in the post-Home Alone kids' movies that focus on prepubescents taking charge of their world. You'd think nothing could be more universal than Shakespeare's babe "mewling and puking in the nurse's arms," but in recent family fare infants don't mewl or puke.

Moviemakers are afraid to put anyone aged six months to 21 years -- including Shakespeare's "whining schoolboy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like a snail unwillingly to school" -- in the position of having to learn anything. In a whole string of Nineties teacher films -- Renaissance Man (Danny DeVito vs. raw army recruits), Dangerous Minds (Michelle Pfeiffer vs. raw Bay Area kids), 187 (Samuel L. Jackson vs. raw New York and L.A. kids), even the disreputable and entertaining The Substitute (Tom Berenger vs. raw Miami kids) -- students can be moved or inspired or, in extreme cases, warred on, but never taught the essentials of mental discipline or critical thinking.

Shakespeare's soldier, "jealous in honor and quick in guard," resonates intermittently today. If in the Reagan-Bush era mainstream film culture was largely about combat heroism, in the Clinton era moviemakers aren't so sure. True Lies adopted the Gulf War strategy -- massive firepower, limited target -- but tried to put a hip spin on it when Jamie Lee Curtis said of Schwarzenegger: "I married Rambo." Courage Under Fire, a teary-eyed 1996 movie about the Gulf War, derives its occasional moments of power from an up-close, non-CNN view of the ground war and a critique of military justice and protocol. By and large, soldiers "full of strange oaths and bearded" have disappeared. The most popular espionage hero appears to be either Harrison Ford's version of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger or Harrison Ford's version of the president in Air Force One. His look of WASP angst seals his image as an all-American paterfamilias -- but it doesn't prevent him from pulling off more preposterous derring-do than Rambo.

The main attitude toward the military in the Clinton movie era could be characterized as grudging respect. In Renaissance Man, for example, Danny DeVito's one-time peacenik grows to see the use and beauty of military fitness. Proving one's manhood by rising through the ranks of the nation's military or police forces is still a prerequisite for superstardom -- proving one's womanhood, too, if G.I. Jane starts a trend. Of course, in G.I. Jane Demi Moore seems determined to prove that womanhood is indistinguishable from manhood; the rabble-rousing line comes when she screams at her homicidally sadistic drillmaster, "Suck my dick!"

As for older adults -- those who in Shakespeare wear "spectacles on nose and pouch on side" before entering "second childishness and mere oblivion/sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything" -- well, in American movies you don't see many older adults. That is, unless they're played by Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau as septuagenarian adolescents successfully wooing younger beauties like Ann-Margret or Sophia Loren or Dyan Cannon.

The most incomprehensible aspect of Hollywood's Ages of Man is that there are no links between them. One stage doesn't grow out of or into another; you rarely see how the dewy-eyed juvenile evolves into the can-do veteran. That's why the quirky, vulnerable Forrest Gump, with his 75 IQ and superb athletic talent, is the hero of our time -- he's simultaneously a good child and good soldier. Tom Hanks is one of the few nonaction box office draws who can launch a movie with the clout of a Harrison Ford. But in Forrest Gump, the quintessential Nineties movie, he is a sort of action hero -- a speedster who wins a Medal of Honor. He even goes through an obligatory action scene, running with a look of anguish on his face as fireballs go off behind him -- just like Keanu Reeves in Chain Reaction. Gump epitomizes the fantasy image of an American as an innately right being. He's racially colorblind, nonsexist, and courtly: His true love is also his best friend Jennie (Robin Wright). Even his military heroism is nonthreatening -- he saves men in his unit from American napalm as well as the Viet Cong.

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