Coming Contractions

Man, we've seen some scary faces staring out at us from magazine covers in the past two weeks. First Newsweek ran that infamous sketch of the Unabomber. Is it just me or has anyone else noticed the uncanny resemblance to Weird Al Yankovic? Has the FBI explored the correlation between the pop parodist's dry spells and the mail terrorist's attacks? Then Time touted Colin Powell for president. As I understand it a Powell candidacy would enjoy two big advantages over the competition: One, he's not a lawyer, and two, he's not a politician. The part that worries me is that no one's really sure what he is, but apparently that's of minimal import. Ross Perot's respectable showing in the 1992 election proved that Americans are ready to play Let's Make a Deal: "We don't want a Democrat and we don't want a Republican. Give us whatever's behind door number three, Monty."

But the spookiest cover boy of all had to be renowned hooker-hugger Hugh Grant. While I loved the headlines, especially in the British press (personal fave: the Daily Star's "Tart Who Blew It for Hugh!"), the accompanying mug shots of a dazed and confused Grant were truly frightening. He looked wild-eyed and maniacal, exhibiting no trace of the gallant charm or self-effacing humor that made him a thinking woman's sex symbol and paradigm of sensitive, articulate, Nineties Guy-ism in last year's art house megahit Four Weddings and a Funeral.

While you have to question Grant's judgment -- slipping a streetwalker who calls herself Divine Brown 60 bucks for a little car vacuum less than two weeks before the premiere of your much-ballyhooed Hollywood debut demonstrates the kind of insanely bad timing not witnessed since Gary Hart's tàte-…-tàte with Donna Rice in 1987; both scandals broke just as the two charismatic media darlings were about to test their viability as leading men (Grant in Hollywood, Hart in Washington). I can't say I understand what all the fuss is about. It's just another case of life imitating art, the art in this case being Pretty Woman. Granted, Hugh made one major miscalculation -- he forgot to cast Julia Roberts as his costar. Ms. Brown may be divine, but she's no America's sweetheart.

But cut him some slack. The guy's an actor, after all. Americans have always held movie people to a different moral standard. In fact, many of us live vicariously through their off-screen exploits, as the enduring popularity of supermarket tabloids attests. We expect scandals from movie stars. Licentious behavior is part of the job description, just as it is with rock stardom or the priesthood.

The good news (if you're Grant) is that the notoriety may actually translate to box-office strength. Nine Months needs all the free publicity it can get. The movie is another one of those sappy, contrived family values homilies from writer-director Christopher Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire). And as usual, Columbus confuses crap for Capra.

Nine Months adheres to the filmmaker's standard formula of lame jokes, halfhearted pratfalls, funny-dysfunctional-family gags, and syrupy happy ending. Recent off-screen indiscretions aside, if this movie is any indication, Grant's days as a romantic leading man are numbered. The stuttering, demurring, squinting, and forehead crinkling have lost much of their charm from overuse. Since Four Weddings Grant has trotted out the same tired facial tics and vocal stammering in Sirens, The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain, and now again in Nine Months. (The as-yet-unreleased-in-Miami An Awfully Big Adventure, which played at the Miami Film Festival, represents a bit of a departure, with Sir Huge playing against type as a misanthropic, unsympathetic, gay theatrical director.) Thankfully, Columbus had the good sense to stack the deck with a supporting cast that makes his tepid material seem a lot funnier than it otherwise would. Tom Arnold, Jeff Goldblum, and Joan Cusack struggle mightily to wring laughs from uninspired setups and punchless punch lines until Robin Williams, batting clean-up, steps in to deliver both the babies and the big comic payoff in the final act. But until Williams's arrival, you have to endure roughly 90 minutes of Chris Columbus on a soapbox, preaching to all us childless single folks that we can't know true happiness until we've reproduced. (Methinks he doth protest too much.) Columbus's shrill cant makes Ron Howard's Parenthood seem like an even-handed masterwork of depth and insight.

Grant stars as Samuel Faulkner, a contented single guy who thinks he has it all -- promising career (child psychologist), cool apartment in San Francisco, hot red Porsche, and even hotter redheaded girlfriend of several years, Rebecca (Julianne Moore).

"I'd say that life is dangerously close to perfection," Samuel assesses.
"I'm over 30 and I feel like something's missing," frets Rebecca, who teaches dance to young girls.

Surprise, surprise, Rebecca gets pregnant. Samuel accuses her of intentionally slipping up in the birth-control department (her responsibility, of course) but quickly drops the accusation when she responds with a withering stare. Given what little Columbus has told us about Rebecca to this point, you couldn't blame Samuel for pressing her. Her character is a cipher, a girlfriend whose only function in the story is to complicate Samuel's life.

And that's pretty much that. The rest of the film wallows in Samuel's kvetching and depicts his by-the-numbers transformation from self-involved schmuck to selfless dad-to-be, punctuated only by a clumsy interlude wherein Columbus concocts a thoroughly unconvincing breakup so Samuel can get his ear pierced, try out swinging bachelorhood, and find it wanting. (Look! Hugh Grant in-line skating in San Francisco! Watch out for that hill....Oh my gosh!)

Columbus occasionally displays the flair for gentle slapstick that served him so well in Home Alone; a smartly orchestrated toy store fistfight between Tom Arnold and a smart-alecky salesman in a Barney-like dinosaur costume makes up for in execution what it lacks in plot relevance. But most of the time the director resorts to the usual manipulative dreck, such as the "complication" in the seventh month of Rebecca's pregnancy that sends her to the hospital and gives Samuel a chance to prove to her what a stand-up guy he's become, or the drawn-out race-to-the-hospital sequence (Samuel, having traded in the Porsche for a family car, keeps running into pedestrians as he drives, see, so he has to pick them up and take them along and the car gets really overcrowded and one guy's feet stick out the window and...) when Rebecca is ready to deliver.

As he did in Mrs. Doubtfire, Williams saves the day. The comedian, playing a nervous Russian emigre obstetrician, appears in only two scenes, but they are by far the film's funniest. Like Grant, Williams often substitutes shtick for acting. Unlike Grant, Williams is a great clown. Perhaps, even despite Columbus's heavy hand, if Grant's and Williams's roles had been reversed, this baby could have been saved. As it stands we're left with too much hemming and hawing, squirming and feinting, and more eyelash fluttering than you've ever seen from a male actor not dressed in drag.

Hugh Grant has run out of tricks.
As a public service, New Times hereby opens the Hugh Grant hotline. Any time you hear a howler with Hugh as the punch line and cannot wait to pass it on, call 579-1577 and repeat it for us. Next week we'll publish the best of the worst.


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