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.

Here Bakshi's technical prowess exceeds any of his previous animated films (including the delightfully vulgar Fritz the Cat or the adaption of Tolkien's synthetic mythology, Lord of the Rings). He uses every trick in the modern trade: blue screen, rotoscope, illustrated set designs, and multiplane cameras. Cool World's hyperkinesis is overwhelming; it's a motor-rhythmic netherworld in persistent motion -- even the roads and buildings move. Unlike Zemeckis's Toon Town in Roger Rabbit, whose dark underpinnings were glib, Cool World reeks of sexual miscreancy. The reprobates who populate the shadowy streets and thoroughfares are inspired by America's least savory metropolitan ills -- murder, prostitution, gambling, extortion, theft, blackmail. It's one of the smartest stupid movies you could imagine.

The star, naturally, is the blond bombshell Holli Would. But this ink-drawn vixen, a clear counterpart to Jessica Rabbit, lacks the delightful film noir dovecote that made Jessica so hilarious. This estrogenous goldilocks is scantily clad throughout her meanderings around Cool World, and when she finally metamorphoses into Kim Basinger (after having sex with Byrne), there's a palpable sense of disappointment. For Basinger, despite her undeniably ravishing beauty, is no more engaging or warm than vanilla ice cream. That's another aspect of Cool World that suffers in relation to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? -- the human characters are stiff as a cutting board (stiffer, even, than the fossil in Prelude to a Kiss). Gabriel Byrne, along with Brad Pitt as the Forties-style detective appointed to the Cool World Police Department, play their respective Noids like wood -- and we're not talking Holli here.

Unfortunately, the very deficiencies in the otherwise linear storytelling approaches in both films countermand the few stylistic points registered. Just as the moviegoing masses appear to have lost interest in the simple mechanics of a plot, directors and writers have also misplaced the gift for logical progressions and multidimensional characterization. If you were to compare Prelude to a Kiss and Cool World to any similarly touted American film of the early Forties, the technical marvels and superior resolution of color would pale beside the simple pleasures of a cogent story charismatically performed.

And we have proof of this in Casablanca, which opens at the Alliance Film/Video Project this Friday, re-released as part of the 50th anniversary of the classic wartime romantic drama. Newly minted 35mm prints of this most haunting of popular romances should convince film lovers that all is not well in the State of California. Too much has been written about Casablanca in the half century since it opened at the Hollywood Theater in New York on November 26, 1942, and I will not add to the circumlocutionary verbiage. Suffice to say that the chemistry between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, set beside the Baldwin/Ryan and Byrne/Basinger facsimiles, is Mount Everest to Beacon Hill. The supporting cast -- Paul Henreid as the gallant resistance fighter, Conrad Veidt as the Nazi officer, the great Claude Rains ("Round up the usual suspects") as a world-wise French policeman, and Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet as Casablanca's slimy underworld creatures -- is an ensemble of the rarest pedigree. And finally, Dooley Wilson's playing and singing of "As Time Goes By" can still turn hearts of stone to cornmeal mush -- an old tune to trounce our newfangled generation of toons. In Casablanca, the magic of cinema suddenly shines like antique crystal.

Directed by Norman Rene; written by Craig Lucas; with Alec Baldwin, Meg Ryan, Kathy Bates, Ned Beatty, Patty Duke, and Sydney Walker.

Rated PG-13.

Directed by Ralph Bakshi; written by Michael Grais and Mark Victor; with Kim Basinger, Gabriel Byrne, and Brad Pitt.

Rated PG-13.

Directed by Michael Curtiz; written by Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, and Howard Koch; with Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, and Dooley Wilson.

Rated PG.
Opens Friday at the Alliance Film/Video Project.


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